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‘Emotional’ debate on changing Dixie State University name expected at Utah Capitol

Dixie State University’s football stadium in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020.
Dixie State University’s football stadium in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Utah lawmakers are expecting ”emotional” debate when the time comes to hear a bill unveiled Monday that would require a public process to recommend a new name for the university.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are expecting ”emotional” debate when the time comes to hear a bill unveiled Monday that would require a public process to recommend a new name for Dixie State University.

HB278, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, would require the university’s trustees, in consultation with the Utah Board of Higher Education, to select and recommend a new name for the four-year institution in St. George.

It also would require the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee to prepare and consider legislation incorporating the new name for the institution in Utah Code, which suggests the process will not be finalized during the current session that ends March 5.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, expressed his support for a name change but Senate leaders were more circumspect.

“It appears there needs to be work done,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

“I think the local community is struggling with that information, and maybe they don’t have the information, and maybe they just have to be made aware. So I think there needs to be some additional education done, and we’ll probably see the bill as it comes over from the House. I don’t know that anybody is committing exactly where they’re at, but I think we’ll look at it and try to do our best as the bill comes,” Adams said.

In a meeting Monday afternoon with the editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL, Dixie State University President Richard Williams said discussions about the name have been going on for 30 years but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd’s death last summer while in police custody and Intermountain Healthcare changing the name of its hospital from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital, effective in January.

Williams said he was especially compelled by the pleas of students and alumni who said the name had negatively impacted their job-seeking or graduate school interviews.

“I had heard for the past five or six years many students coming to me and saying ‘You know, this name is affecting me. I’m at a medical school interview, I get seven minutes to sell myself and five minutes it goes to describe Dixie and the name,’” Williams said.

Williams said he has been asked whether he had been contacted by Black Lives Matter or antifa or groups on the far left.

“None of that happened. It was our students that were reaching out and our alumni saying, ‘Can you please look at this? Can you please listen?’” he said.

The university commissioned a study by the Cicero Group that found that 22% of recent graduates reported that while looking for work outside of Utah, an employer expressed concern about the term Dixie on their resume.

Julie Beck, a DSU trustee who is an alumnus and whose ancestors were early pioneers in the area, said even those who currently oppose the proposed name change “will be blessed by a stronger university, by a stronger economy, by a more inclusive community so that people who are being drawn there from all parts of the United States and the world will feel that this is a place where they can also come and blaze a trail and be part of the great community.”

She was a “Rebelette” and marched at ball games, she said.

“I was there when the Confederate flag was a symbol on campus. I was 17. There was a lot I didn’t understand about American history and the symbolism of that,” Beck said.

Since then, Beck’s had the opportunity to travel and meet people worldwide.

“When I go back and talk to friends of mine that were on the campus at the time, who were minority students who were discriminated against, unbeknownst to me, it breaks my heart. To me, one is too many,” Beck said.

Adams said it appears that there are senators on both sides of the issue. “so I think we’ll have a good discussion,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, would not say whether he supported or opposed the name change, explaining that he would “prefer to wait and see” the topic discussed more among local groups.

He added that he “always hates to make decisions when things are emotional.”

“It’s obviously a really emotional topic down there. It’s really touched some nerves ... especially in St. George,” said Vickers, who represents a portion of Washington County, though he noted most of his district encompasses Beaver and Iron counties. Those areas are “pretty indifferent,” whereas St. George residents are more fired up about the issue, he said.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said she supports HB278.

“There’s a lot of emotion, and there are people that feel strongly on both sides, and what’s really important is to try to bring as much rationality to the discussion as you can,” said Millner, a former president of Weber State University.

Jordon Sharp, Dixie’s vice president of marketing and communication, told the editorial boards that the presidents of all of Utah’s public colleges and universities have signed a letter in support of HB278.

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said legislators “need to look at the fact that Dixie is no longer a regional college. It is now a state university, and we have to look at a name that truly represents the state of Utah as a whole.”

Adams noted that a Cicero study found 70% of St. George locals disapproved of a name change. He said he believes “there needs to be more community support, personally, but we’ll see what happens.”

When asked why Miles became sponsor of the HB278 rather than a lawmaker from southern Utah, Williams said he met with Miles following the State Board of Higher Education’s unanimous vote in supporting the name change. The board’s vote followed a unanimous vote by Dixie State’s trustees to support a change.

Williams said he shared the data from the impact study with Miles and “he offered right away.” Miles is co-chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which was another consideration, Williams said.