Late last week, Dixie State University President Richard Williams delivered a troubling report to the Utah Board of Higher Education. He said the debate over renaming the university has led some in the St. George area to publicly and uncivilly level verbal attacks on students, school employees, administration members, trustees and various businesses.

One person, Williams said, was on suicide watch after being targeted by a Facebook group.

Surely, Utahns are better than this. Surely, those involved in this debate must see that vicious personal attacks are not arguments. They bring dishonor to those responsible.

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Earlier this year, the state Legislature voted to ask the university’s board of trustees to set in motion a process to study a new name for DSU. At the time, lawmakers from southern Utah, in particular, were concerned that local residents had not yet had a chance to weigh in on a name change. Their input was, rightly so, considered vital. However, those who engage in uncivil behavior trivialize their duty to be civically engaged.  

As we have said before, we support a name change for Dixie State University. Language is fluid. Meanings change, as do sensitivities. Removing “Dixie” from the school’s name would not be a surrender to political correctness. It would not be a nod to cancel culture. Instead, it would recognize the powerful meaning words have.

Regardless of its historic regional connotations in the St. George area, the word “dixie” has come to be synonymous nationwide with antebellum Southern sensibilities, particularly with the mistreatment of Black people. DSU’s leaders desire to build a world-class university, and yet a university-commissioned study by the Cicero Group found that the name is “increasingly problematic for … students and alumni.”

It has become a stumbling block for the recruitment of faculty and students, and it inhibits the school’s ability to obtain grants and build partnerships. 

The survey found that 22% of recent graduates living outside of Utah had been asked to explain the school’s name in a job interview, while 42% said the name would make them think twice about attending the school or encouraging someone else to do so.

Cancel culture seeks to eliminate human beings from the nation’s historical narrative because some of their actions offend current sensibilities. By contrast, in this case, a name change would recognize that words, when associated with a brand, have the ability to spell success or failure, even as they can unintentionally hurt others.

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Other parts of the country have dealt with similar situations. Several years ago, Arizona changed the longtime name of a Phoenix-area mountain from Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak, in honor of Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, a Native American killed in combat in Iraq. Proponents said the original name was offensive in Native American languages.

That, too, led to fierce debate and accusations. One member of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names resigned in protest of the change. 

But with time, feelings have subsided. The mountain now stands as a fitting testament to the bravery exhibited by the first female soldier to die in that war.

We are confident the people of St. George, and all of Utah, will come to support a change to a new name that sets DSU on a path toward becoming a world-class educational institution with a distinguished faculty and a student body that represents a wide array of cultures. 

In the meantime, however, people involved in the name-change debate need to listen to the better angels of their nature. Words do matter. When used as weapons, they can leave lasting, debilitating wounds.

People shop for clothing at Dixie State University in St. George on Friday, April 9, 2021.
People shop for clothing at Dixie State University in St. George on Friday, April 9, 2021. The Dixie State University board of trustees’ executive committee has began a name change process for the university. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Correction: A previous version was published with the byline of Deseret News columnist Jay Evensen. The piece is by the Deseret News editorial board.