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Dixie State’s name change isn’t about the past. It’s about students’ future

Students, faculty and alumni of the university in southern Utah say the name Dixie is hurting their prospects for a bright future

Dixie State University’s football stadium in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Students, faculty and alumni say the name Dixie is hurting their prospects for a bright future, writes the Deseret News Editorial Board.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

William Shakespeare taught an important truth through his iconic protagonist, the young Juliet of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“What’s in a name?” she asks. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And so it is with Dixie State University in St. George. Another, more appropriate, name would not change the character of that community, the beauty of its natural setting or the legacy of hardy pioneers who forged a settlement out of a forbidding landscape.

But it would help the university, and its host city, grow and become more appealing.

The first part of Juliet’s line, “What’s in a name?” is being answered today in many ways by graduates of DSU and the people who might hire them, as well as those who might consider attending or teaching there, and it isn’t good news.

Research by the Cicero Group, a nationally recognized data collection and consulting firm, found that 52% of recent graduates who live outside of Utah believe the name hurts the school’s brand. In addition, 22% of those who have looked for jobs recently have had an employer express concern that a school named Dixie is on their resume.

Among those who live in the school’s main recruiting area, which includes several nearby states, 42% say the name makes them less likely to attend DSU.

As expected, sentiments are different among residents of St. George and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Utah, where people are familiar with the school and the area’s history. Cicero found 62% of people in southwestern Utah and 46% statewide believe the school would have greater brand appeal if it kept its name.

Frankly, that opinion is hard to defend, especially given a growing cultural awareness of even subtle racism and its effects, as well as the power of words and names. The name Dixie has connotations that reach far beyond Utah and its early settlers. It is hurtful to many.

University President Richard Williams has said the school aspires to expand its footprint, extend its appeal and become a leader regionally and beyond. That can’t happen when the first question alumni face in a job interview is, “Please explain the name of the university where you obtained your degree.”

Utah lawmakers are considering a bill, HB278, that would set in motion a process for the university’s board of trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education to select and recommend a new name. It’s the only logical next step for DSU, but its passage is far from certain.

In a meeting with media members Monday, state Senate leaders declined to commit as to whether they would vote for the bill, emphasizing the feelings of southern Utah residents who resist the change.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he prefers to wait for more discussions with local groups before deciding how to vote. Senate President Stuart Adams echoed that, saying he would like to see an “education process” in the region.

This isn’t that complicated. Changing Dixie State’s name may cause temporary political pain, but it would quickly become a nonissue as the community moves on, much as the earlier decision to abandon the school’s “Rebels” mascot in favor of the Trailblazers, or its decision to drop the Confederate flag as a school symbol.

The decision will take some political courage, but it is a necessary one if the fast-growing region wants a name that reflects its desire to be a welcoming, broad-minded home for an increasingly diverse population.