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Trustees vote to drop ‘Dixie’ from Dixie State University name

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Dixie State University in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. In the background is the Jeffrey R. Holland Centennial Commons.

Dixie State University in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. The school’s board of trustees voted Monday to change the name of the university.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Dixie State University is en route to a name change.

The university’s board of trustees voted unanimously Monday to approve a recommendation to change the name of the university, which must be approved by the Utah Legislature in consultation with the Utah System of Higher Education.

Some trustees were choked up with emotion before casting their votes.

“It’s been a struggle. It’s been a real struggle,” said board Chairman Dave Clark, a former Utah Speaker of the House, noting the tug between the area’s pride in the institution and tradition, but also the need to do what is best for students’ and the institution’s future.

But he voted for the change along with the other trustees.

Prior to the vote, trustee Jon Pike, who is also St. George’s mayor, said, “I don’t think it’s wise to kick the can down the road any further.”

Dixie State University President Richard “Biff” Williams said amid the process of studying the impact of the university’s long-time name, which included commissioning a study by the Cicero Group, officials learned it was “increasingly problematic for our students and alumni” and had hindered the university’s ability to recruit students, faculty, staff and had limited its ability to build partnerships and obtain grants and funding.

While the name Dixie is cherished in the region, nationally the name does not “encompass inclusion and acceptance,” Williams said.

According to the study, 22% of recent graduates reported that while looking for work outside of Utah that an employer expressed concern about the term Dixie on their resumes.

The study also indicated that 42% of respondents from the university’s recruiting region said the name makes them less likely to attend DSU.

Forty-seven percent of alumni who live out of state reported they feel uncomfortable wearing their alma mater’s brand, Williams said.

The survey also found the name stirs confusion, with 45% of faculty and staff reporting that when they meet others in academia, they assume Dixie State University is in the South.

Moreover, one-third of southern Utah residents, 41% of Utahns, and 64% of respondents from DSU’s recruiting region indicate that Dixie connotes the South or Confederacy.

“As DSU begins implementing our new strategic plan, it is important the university’s name is befitting of a polytechnic-focused institution and will help us recruit, maintain and graduate the best and brightest students,” Williams said. 

Trustee Jill Beck noted her “solid ancestral and personal connection at Dixie State University as an institution.”

But she noted remarks of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calling on government, business and educational leaders to review processes, laws and organizational attitudes regarding racism.

Beck also said public perception of Dixie State University “is still not taken seriously.”

Beck said she spent eight-plus years listening to comments from people “that just tell me that many people perceive us as playing at higher education in Washington County. And that perception cannot continue if we are to grow. Just the fact that we are reluctant to release that name shows that we don’t take it seriously.”

Trustee Tiffany Wilson, an alum of Dixie High School and Dixie College, said she grieved when the university changed the mascot from the Rebel. Even her mother is named Dixie, she said, explaining her affinity for the name.

“It’s very clear that there’s no question locally that we understand what the name means and it’s easy to say, if we could just explain it to everyone, that would be great. We don’t have that opportunity. Our students don’t have that opportunity so what it came down for me was really looking at what my commitment and my responsibility is here at the university, which is No. 1 and really only to the students, and it’s for their well-being and for their benefit,” she said.

Wilson said the institution must work to “create a place that follows the mission that we have created for the university. One of the key components of the mission of Dixie State is to be open and inclusive.”

The study found that “48% of African Americans believe that keeping the ‘Dixie’ name will negatively impact the university’s reputation. Those who identify as white are slightly more likely to say the ‘Dixie’ name will have a negative impact than a positive impact, 33% to 29%.”

According to one focus group, keeping the Dixie name implies racism. “There is a sense that keeping the ‘Dixie’ names now shows agreement, whether tacit or explicit, with confederate ideals of racism, oppression and exclusion,” the executive summary states.

However, another focus group said the name was not a significant deterrent. “Many are skeptical that the ‘Dixie’ name deters a material number of prospective students, employees or funding dollars,” according to the executive summary.

Some donors may require a guarantee that their contributions not be used for rebranding while others indicated their emphasis would be on students, not the institution.

The study indicated that a name change could have negative implications for fundraising. “Two-thirds of alumni who graduated prior to 2009, and nearly half who graduated after 2009, say they will consider reducing support to the university,” should it change its name, the study says.

According to a university website, the institution has had six name changes since it was established in 1911, each with Dixie in the title except for its inaugural name, St. George Stake Academy.

There has been growing pressure to rename the university, with an online petition, a vote by the university’s faculty senate calling for a change, and the NAACP all urging a change. However, there was also an online petition to preserve the name.

In July, Intermountain Healthcare officials announced that Dixie Regional Medical Center would change its name. The hospital that has had some version of Dixie in its name since 1952, but starting Jan. 1, it will be known as Intermountain St. George Hospital.

Nationally, Dixie has become increasingly problematic as the nation has begun to reckon with racial inequality. In June, the country music group known as the Dixie Chicks changed its name to “The Chicks,” acknowledging recent protests led them to reconsider how that word makes some of their fans feel.

This summer, in the wake of the nation’s racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, Dixie State’s faculty senate conducted an emergency vote in support of removing the word Dixie from the university name due to its racist connotations to slavery in the South.

The university commissioned the Cicero Group study “to be attentive to the current dialogue regarding racial symbols and terms, and we are likewise sensitive to the affinity that many have for the ‘Dixie’ name,” the school announced in a statement this fall.

“We value and respect the rich pioneering history reflected in the local use of the term, and we understand the negative connotations associated with the term as well.”

Earlier in the year, however, the university released a statement that said: “Despite current media coverage, there is no formal process in place to change the Dixie State University name at this time. The power to rename an institution ultimately lies with the Utah State Legislature, which would receive input from the Utah System of Higher Education.”

In recent years, the university has taken other steps as concerns were raised by the institution’s names, mascot and Confederate imagery removed from the campus, including a statue titled “The Rebels,” which depicted a horse and Confederate soldier, one who carried a Confederate battle flag.

Formerly, the university’s mascot was the Rebel. It was later changed to the Red Storm. In 2016, Dixie State changed its mascot to Trailblazers and its mascot to a bison dubbed Brooks after Samuel Brooks, the first student to attend St. George Stake Academy.