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Closed-door negotiations over ‘Dixie’ name show a lack of leadership

Senate leaders should assign HB278, the bill that would start a name change process at Dixie State University, to a committee immediately

A banner at Dixie State University in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Senate leaders should assign HB278, the bill that would start a name change process at Dixie State, to a committee immediately, argues the Deseret News Editorial Board.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Anytime government “by the people” goes behind closed doors, it’s time to worry.

Unfortunately, that’s where discussions over whether to change the name of Dixie State University have gone, and it serves no one — not those who want to preserve a name that today has racist overtones, and not those who want a change and who have been bolstered by decisions by the school’s board of trustees, the State Board of Higher Education and the state House of Representatives, all conducted in public.

The House passed HB278, which would start the process of a name change, by a veto-proof 51-20 vote, after a robust, impassioned debate. Earlier, the House Education Committee passed it by a 12-2 vote. Gov. Spencer Cox has said he would sign the bill in its current form.

But the Senate so far has refused to even assign the bill to a committee.

Sen. Don Ipson, who represents St. George, said Friday, “It is evident the community is not ready to give up the name, by and large.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, acknowledging recent opinion polls, said there is a need for more community education on the issue. But how can people be educated when the bill is bottled up and when Republican caucus discussions on it remain closed to the public?

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on March 5. That means the public increasingly faces two possible outcomes, neither of which is good. The first is that Senate leaders would keep the bill bottled up until time runs out, negating the House vote and denying Utahns the benefit of knowing how senators feel in a public debate.

The second is that Senate leaders would negotiate some different version of the bill and release it with little time left for debate or public input. This tactic almost never serves the public interest well. It does, however, serve the interests of politicians who would rather avoid having to say too much about an issue.

As we have said before, the need to change the university’s name is not an outgrowth of “cancel culture” or a liberal plot. It’s a necessary step for a school that once was a small community college whose reach remained well within regional understandings, but which now is a university desiring a greater national and international presence.

Research by the Cicero Group, a nationally recognized data collection and consulting firm, found that 52% of alumni who live outside Utah believe the name is detrimental to the school’s brand. Also, 22% of out-of-state recent graduates said the school’s name has been raised as a concern by potential employers.

Words and connotations matter, and “Dixie” connotes the antebellum South and the racism attached to its old social order. That’s hard to explain away.

Utah has a republican form of government precisely because it makes sense to elect qualified representatives to study issues and make decisions in the best interests of the people. Direct democracies tend to fail under the rubble of prejudices, ignorance and collusion.

But republican governments require leadership and political courage.

In this case, the school’s name should not be decided by opinion polls. It should be decided by those who are elected to represent not just the people, but the best interests of the state’s system of higher education and its students. And it should be decided in public, in full view of those who elected the senators involved.

Opinion polls do not measure those who might move to St. George in the future, whether as faculty members or as employees of businesses spun off by research at a vibrant university whose progress is not inhibited by an anachronistic and hurtful name.

HB278 is not a work in progress. It is a bill whose time has come, and whose time for open and public debate has arrived. Senate leaders should assign it to a committee immediately.