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Utah Legislature passes Dixie State name change

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The proposal to change the name of Dixie State University to Utah Tech passed the Legislature on Wednesday after two lengthy debates about whether it would betray the community or give students a better chance of succeeding.

The bill passed the House 56-15. It passed the Senate 17-12. It now moves to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for his signature before going into effect.

In arguing for the bill, sponsor Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, emphasized that Dixie State “has done exactly what we asked them to do in our regular session. We asked them to take a look and bring back, if they decided, and whether they wanted to forward a new name for Dixie State University.”

Miles said those involved completed “myriad” studies and surveys in what ended up being a “very thorough process.” That’s despite the claims of opponents of the name change within the community that their voices have not been heard.

‘Heritage center’ proposed

On the Senate floor, Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, noted that Dixie was founded in 1911 as a high school and became Dixie Academy in 1913.

“The locals wanted the name Dixie linked to their school, and that attitude has continued generation after generation,” Ipson said.

“On behalf of the Washington County residents whom I’m honored to represent and who have, overwhelmingly, a desire to retain the name that is such a legacy to our community, I ask you this day to vote no,” he said.

After negotiations during this year’s general session, Ipson signed on as a co-sponsor to compromise bill HB278 to start the name change process and direct Dixie State University to begin a robust public comment gathering period.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said that after moving to southern Utah about 40 years ago, he’s “come to understand and appreciate (the culture) more.” Snow emphasized that he cares about the opinions of those who oppose the name change.

A “heritage center” on campus could help preserve and celebrate the history of the area, Snow said.

He also proposed an amendment that would require the board of trustees to designate the main campus as the Dixie Campus for no less than 20 years. After that, it would become the trustees’ decision whether to continue using the name.

Snow’s proposal made it into the bill.

“We need to work now on building bridges, and I think we’ve attempted to do that with the heritage committee and with the heritage center on campus, and I think we further are trying to do that by allowing the designation of this campus to be known as the Dixie Campus,” Snow said.

University leaders react

“We’re grateful. We’re really grateful to the Senate, the House, and all those that supported us. This is a huge step for our students and a leap forward moving the institution forward,” said DSU President Richard “Biff” Williams after the bill passed.

As he spoke, staff members behind him were crying and hugging in the Capitol hallway.

“It’s been something that people have sacrificed on both sides, whether they wanted the name change or they didn’t. It’s been very emotional, and we’re sensitive to that, because there are many people in the community that have given their heart and soul to the community, and now they feel like we’ve abandoned that,” Williams said.

He said the school now needs to “create that relationship and trust back.”

Williams said officials are also excited to have a Dixie Campus in St. George.

“As you know, we have a strong heritage in southern Utah. We love our community, they love us. We’ve been somewhat divided on this issue because we want to move students forward, so having a Dixie Campus will really allow us to say, ‘This was our history. We have a great culture down here, great community,’” he said.

Jordon Sharp, DSU vice president of marketing and communication, said the process has been “really difficult, emotional and exciting.”

“We love our community, we love Dixie State, and the only thing I can say we love more is our students, and this was truly about them today,” Sharp said.

Heated debate

Before the House vote, Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, called the name Dixie “our soul in southern Utah.”

He said he has “major problems” with the arguments that the name is affecting students and other arguments against keeping the name. The school has seen an increase in attendance each year for the past five years, including minorities, according to Brooks. He said the university also has a higher percentage of African American students than the University of Utah.

Brooks pointed to the university’s 95% job placement rate, which he said is better than that of Harvard.

“How is that restricting people?” Brooks asked.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, urged fellow legislators to consider passing the bill to benefit students.

“The only question we should be asking ourselves is: Is this a state institution for which we bear responsibility, and what is the impact of the name on the students? Those are the only questions we should be considering,” Waldrip said.

“How many students are you willing to sacrifice on the altar of the name Dixie?” he added.

Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, said he was “bothered” that the Legislature gave the university a year to talk to residents, but he received emails from people after the committee hearing the previous day saying: “It’s so nice to be able to talk.”

“These people were very frustrated, they felt like they never had a voice, and I think that’s awful,” Johnson said.

He said he was also troubled that DSU President Williams has told people the school will become Utah Tech “like Texas Tech and Virginia Tech.” Those out-of-state schools, however, have very large budgets, Johnson contended.

“Just because they changed the name, this is now the tech university in Utah? I think that is very bad,” Johnson said, expressing that he’s concerned parents will send kids to the school believing it is on par with those other schools.

“You can’t get your aspirations too far ahead of the reality, and if you do, then the rubber band breaks,” he added.

Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, said he spent the last week in St. George, where he talked to people about the issue. An elderly woman did not want the name changed, a new resident didn’t care, but the athletes told him that when they introduce themselves at events, others think they’re from a Southern state.

“That is the worst kind of brand confusion if you’re a university that you would ever want to have,” McCay said.

Contributing: Katie McKellar