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Higher education board votes to support Dixie State University name change

Palm trees flank an entrance to Dixie State University in St. George.
An entrance sign at Dixie State University is pictured in St. George on Sunday, Oct.11, 2020.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Higher Education voted unanimously Friday to support changing Dixie State University’s name.

Earlier this week, the university’s board of trustees voted to support a name change, which was supported by the higher education board. Changing the name of the university is up to the Utah Legislature, because it would require a change in state statute.

Dave Clark, a former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives and chairman of the university trustees, said he was opposed to the change when he was first approached by DSU President Richard “Biff” Williams.

“My first conversation with President Williams was not just ‘no’ but “heck, no,’” not during his term as trustees chairman, he said, admitting he may have used stronger language at the time.

But it also started his own personal exploration of the name and its impacts.

The name has cultural and personal significance, he said. “I mean, I have ancestors buried in the cemeteries here.”

Clark said he loves and holds his heritage close to his heart.

“But that’s looking back, and I think that we owe it to the students to be looking forward. I think that creates a different lens and a different image,” he said.

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

Williams said some licensing partners have refused to continue to carry Dixie State University apparel.

“We had sponsors that said, ‘If you change the name we’ll stop supporting you.’ Others said ‘If you don’t change the name we’ll stop supporting you.’”

But an impact study by the Cicero Group indicates that students were bearing the brunt of the name, with 1 in 4 saying it was impacting job prospects or other opportunities such as acceptance into graduate school.

“They’re in the interview and they (interviewers) just want to focus on, ‘What is Dixie?’ instead of their credentials,” Williams said.

Board member Lisa-Michele Church said she is a Dixie College graduate, as are many of her family members. Moreover, her family comes from Dixie pioneer stock.

“It comes down to what is the role of a public university? This is not a heritage monument. This is a public university that has to serve students ... and I want the students to have a successful experience there,” Church said.

She added, “I want us to be an effective public university. And I want us to mean that we are fair and open-minded and that is not happening. I just see that as an impediment. As much as I love my community, I don’t think it serves anyone’s interests to constantly defend and explain the name, and I’ve done that my whole life.”

In July, Intermountain Healthcare officials announced that Dixie Regional Medical Center would change its name. The hospital 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 it 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.

Board member Shawn Newell, said his daughter is a graduate of Dixie State.

“It was a difficult thing for her when she was there, in being in that institution and going outside of the state, and telling people where she graduated from and participating in sports there and talking to other student athletes, wherever she traveled to, about the connotation of this name, Dixie State University,” said Newell, who is Black.

“What we’re talking about here is a representation of the name of this institution. This is heavy. For a lot of people outside of the state of Utah, this is really heavy,” particularly among those who understand “what all this means and what that word means, Dixie, and the impact that it has on individuals,” he said.

Some board members questioned Cicero Group representatives about the research it conducted on impacts of the university’s name.

Board vice chairman Aaron Osmond said some residents of southern Utah claimed the surveys asked “leading questions” because “there was a bias or a political goal to achieve.”

Cicero Group senior partner Aaron Andersen refuted the claims. He said the firm’s charge from the institution and Williams was “to conduct ‘down the center, unbiased research.’ That’s who we are as a firm. That’s what we do. We pride ourselves in doing that kind of work.”

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.

Changing the name is up to the Utah Legislature and Williams said he intends to conduct an inclusive process to develop recommendations for a new name for the institution.

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

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

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