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After emotional debate, bill to rename Dixie State University clears Utah House

HB278 moves to Senate for further consideration

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.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers took another step Wednesday to change the name of Dixie State University.

After nearly an hour of emotional debate that extended past the House’s scheduled adjournment from its morning session, representatives voted 51-20 to pass HB278, which would launch a process to change the name of Dixie State University. The bill moves to the Utah Senate for further consideration.

Many representatives from the St. George area voted against the bill, some of whom said the process had been rushed and there had not been sufficient community input.

Sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, the bill 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 to the Legislature for its consideration.

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.

Miles noted “unprecedented” growth of the university.

“I know I wasn’t aware of the great strides they’ve made but in the past five years. Dixie state has added 111 academic programs. Their student enrollment in the last five years has increased by 40% and Dixie State’s physical facility footprint has nearly doubled. They’re no longer the little two-year Dixie State College, their scope has just expanded and their regional significance has shot to the top,” Miles said.

He said as university further embraces its role as a comprehensive regional university “it now needs a name that reflects that enhanced mission and offerings and potential.”

While residents appreciate “the grit and sacrifice” behind the name Dixie in Utah, “unfortunately, however, due to the national definition that is synonymous with the Civil War, it is having a measurable negative impact on our students, alumni, employees and the institution’s ability to recruit and build meaningful relationships.”

An amendment to the bill adopted in committee allows the St. George campus to be referred to as the Dixie campus.

In a statement after the vote, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said “although the Dixie name may not carry racial overtones for many in our state, negative perceptions of the name present challenges for students as they enter the workplace. Renaming the school better aligns with the vision to establish the institution as a regional university and economic driver for southern Utah. Now is the right time to make this change.”

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said the name change is a “passionate” issue for many Utahns. He said he received more than 1,000 email on this bill alone.

“Unfortunately the definition of Dixie carries a different connotation elsewhere in the world than it does in that small region,” he said.

There comes a time that change and growth are necessary.

“As we send students out from that institution, we don’t want to send them out with leg weights in a headwind into the world where they have to spend any time defending or discussing the name of the institution that they have nothing to do with. This is simply a recognition of the reality of what is in our world today,” Waldrip said.

The name change would not “take away from the great history, the great sacrifice and the wonderful people of the Dixie region.”

But others like Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, spoke in opposition, expressing concern for the feelings of local residents.

If someone doesn’t like the name of the university, they “don’t have to go to that school,” Shipp said.

“I feel like that we’re making a ... decision not considering the history of this, the local community and how they feel about it,” he said.

Shipp said residents of Cedar City continue to be upset about Cedar City High School changing its mascot to the Red instead of Redmen.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, also spoke in opposition, noting the massive enrollment growth and state investment in DSU.

“The name is not keeping people from coming to Dixie. The name is not keeping people from getting jobs. ... What we’re doing is getting into the cancel culture. You know we have a name here, that actually does have a negative perception on us, if you get a degree and go outside the state. It’s called BYU,” he said, which prompted groans from many representatives in the chamber.

Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, urged caution.

“I think we need to know what the name is or what the alternatives are. Before we jump. I asked you to use some caution and some temperance when you consider whether you’ll vote for this,” he said.

Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said the bill “puts cart before the horse.”

“This is why we’ve all received so many letters on the subject, the local residents are desperate to have their voices heard on this,” he said.

“They do not want a top-down approach here to be forced or imposed upon them, whereby their voices will only be heard after the fact,” Seegmiller said.

Seegmiller attempted to remove language from the bill that said the new name of the university “not include the term “Dixie.”

Miles said the university has been through “a lengthy and thorough process of vetting this” and urged no changes to the bill.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, also urged House members not to amend the bill.

“I’m somewhat perplexed by my colleague from St. George. We have had a number of meetings to which he has been invited and he has chosen not to come. He wouldn’t even return phone calls except one time. All of these meetings have been done by Zoom,” Last said.

Seegmiller shot back saying his health issues should not be subject to discussion by the body, to which the House speaker concurred.

Last, who was the lone St. George-area representative who voted for HB278, works for the university.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said the proposed change is tantamount to “cancel culture mentality that seeks to erase the past wave of political correctness.”

Seegmiller’s amendment “puts it back in local control where I think it best resides,” Robertson said.

But others like Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said he’s heard from students who said the name Dixie hurt their opportunities. The name is “creating drag on these students.”

The amendment failed on a voice vote.

The university released a statement following the House vote:

“Dixie State University is deeply appreciative of the Utah House of Representatives’ support for our students, demonstrated by passing HB278, Name Change Process for Dixie State University. We are dedicated to offering personalized and engaged learning experiences that prepare students for rewarding careers and are grateful to our state representatives for voting to remove barriers that the current institutional name presents.

“Dixie State looks forward to continuing to work with the Utah Senate as the bill moves to that body. We are mindful that this has been a challenging topic for our community for many years. We appreciate the many individuals who have weighed in regarding this recommendation and who continue to support our institution and students. We are confident that with the help of our community and partners, we will continue to grow a premier institution of higher learning and offer our students unparalleled opportunities, all while preserving and strengthening our heritage.”

In a committee meeting last week, DSU President Richard “Biff” Williams said he did not seek to change the name, but after hearing from a lot of students that the name is problematic for them as they seek admission to graduate schools or apply for jobs, he has become convinced a change is needed.

“After a lot of listening, after a lot of thought, after a lot of study and contemplation, I don’t really feel that we should change the name but we must change our name in order to move the university forward,” Williams said.

The university’s trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education both unanimously supported resolutions in support of a name change. The House Education Committee voted 12-2 in support of HB278.

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

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 protests during the summer of 2020 led band members to reconsider how that word makes some of their fans feel.

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 two Confederate soldiers, one of whom 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.