Thanks to last week’s vote by the Utah House of Representatives, efforts to change the name of Dixie State University inch forward — but not without resistance. Opposition to a name change has shifted from preserving “heritage” to blaming “cancel culture” to the latest installment: weaponizing religion.
According to a source, Sen. Don Ipson plans to prevent a vote on the Senate floor. Aiding his cause — and stirring up considerable backing in southwestern Utah’s Latter-day Saint community — is a blurring of the lines between spirituality and Senate. Timothy Anderson, a leader of the Defending Southwest Heritage Coalition, wrote a letter to local elected officials where he miscontextualized recent comments by President Dallin H. Oaks as an endorsement of the Dixie name. Dan MacArthur, a former mayor of St. George and recently returned mission president, also drew upon religion, writing, “You know, as do we that (cancel culture) will not stop until all vestiges of history, heritage, tradition, culture, and religion are beaten down to the level of their dictated narrative and approval. You are totally naïve if you think otherwise.”
Another letter from a community member conflated Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s use of the name “Dixie” in his remarks at the groundbreaking for the Red Cliffs Utah Temple to support for the name: “I noticed that Elder Holland was reminding all of us of the importance of St George’s history. ... He had no shame in the name of ‘DIXIE.’ It’s in his heart as much or maybe even more than mine.”
Twisting the words of religious leaders — or, worse, weaponizing religion to further a cause — should give us all pause. Latter-day Saints (not Mormons) know the importance of a name, and we should know better.
No longer are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called “Mormons” — instead, we refer to ourselves as members of said church or as Latter-day Saints, and patiently and lovingly help others to do the same.
The “Mormon” moniker, to most of us, was not harmful or misrepresentative — in fact, it was so deeply ingrained into our internal church culture and our external image, that it was, and is, difficult to shake. But to others, our claim to membership in Christ’s church was overshadowed by those two syllables — and it cast doubt as to who or what we worshipped.
We understood clearly what the name meant to us. But as linguists have long proffered, words don’t have inherent meaning, but are given meaning.
The approach DSU is taking, then, should resonate with most Utahns, but especially with members of the state’s dominant religion. DSU President Richard Williams and others have noted that “Dixie,” to people outside of southwestern Utah, has a vastly different meaning than it does to many Utahns.
Williams and his team have sidestepped discussion of the university’s history as justification for a change, and sensibly so. When it comes to race relations, the university has a checkered past — hate crimes, Confederate flags as an official university symbol, mock slave auctions — but rehashing past events will do little to convince Dixie’s defenders that the name was ever connected to racism. Focusing on the name’s racist connotations — and convincing locals that those events and ideas still carry weight — is a losing battle, as the main argument against changing the name is that “it isn’t racist.” Endorsers of this “ahistorical fallacy” — assuming that the injustices of the past have no effect on the present — are hard to sway.
Wisely, the university has cast that approach to the wayside. Instead of trying to open eyes to the past, they’re opening minds to the future. The Cicero study revealed the impact “Dixie” has on incoming and outgoing students — especially outside of Utah, the name “Dixie” serves as a deterrent to some recruitment and employment efforts. Forty-two percent of potential students in DSU’s main recruiting area are less likely to attend the school because of its name; 22% of recent graduates seeking employment outside of Utah had an employer express concern about it.
The message DSU administrators are sending should be clear: Dixie State’s name change isn’t about the past. It’s about students’ future. And when it comes to the name, ‘Dixie’ makes most think of the Stars and Bars, not a comprehensive, polytechnic university in the Southwestern U.S.
Some DSU graduates are learning the hard way that their school’s name doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it does to some potential employers. The question that needs answering is this: Is our interpretation of a name more important than everyone else’s?
Perspective, then, is up for vote on the Senate floor, and our state senators should not allow flimsy invocations to “heritage,” or to religion, prevent them from making the principled decision. The name needs to change — as does the idea that “Dixie” carries the same meaning outside of our lovely Deseret.