Most Utahns say Dixie State shouldn’t change its name as lawmakers grapple with issue
Sources say Senate has no plans to hold hearing for bill; governor says he’d sign it and believes change is necessary for university’s success
As state lawmakers weigh the next steps over legislation that would set in motion a process to change the controversial name of Dixie State University, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows just one-fifth of Utahns support a change.
The poll found that 61% of Utahns say the public university should not change its name, while 20% support a name change. Meanwhile, 19% were not sure.
The poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen of 1,000 registered Utah voters Feb. 10-16 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Responding to the poll results, Dixie State University President Richard “Biff” Williams said he is not surprised that Utahns love and support the Dixie name.
“Personally, I also love what it represents: the region’s heritage and the grit and dedication pioneers displayed when establishing not only St. George, but also educational opportunities and the institution that has become Dixie State University. We love the deep commitment our community has for our institution,” Williams said.
“However, the decision to support a name change goes so much deeper than a love for a name and what it represents. By advocating for an institutional name change, we are advocating for our students and alumni’s continued success.”
Tim Anderson, a St. George attorney who served 12 years on the Dixie College Foundation Board and has been an outspoken opponent of the name change, said the poll results reflect the sentiments of Washington County residents.
“We’re very impressed with that number because that tells our story better than almost anything else, that percentage. When I first heard it, I thought it’s consistent with Washington County but it’s statewide and that’s incredible,” he said.
HB278, the legislation to launch the process to officially change the university’s name, remains in Utah Senate’s Rules Committee after passing by a vote of 51-20 in the House of Representatives earlier this month.
No debate in the Senate?
At least two sources say the Utah Senate has no plans at this time to assign HB278 to a committee for a hearing. HB278 would require the university’s trustees, in consultation with the Utah Board of Higher Education, to select and recommend to lawmakers a new name for the four-year institution in St. George. Both groups have unanimously approved resolutions in support of a name change.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, on Friday urged the Utah Senate to debate the bill and vote on it.
“There is so much at stake for DSU, its students and our great state. I would strongly encourage my colleagues in the Senate to respect all the governing bodies and individuals that have weighed in on this issue and please debate the bill,” said Miles, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Addressing reporters on Friday, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said work on the bill is continuing. “But I think there’s some challenges with it. I think we’re trying to refine it,” he said.
Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, explained further: “The situation is, the people, the community and the university are at a little bit of a difference so we’re going to see if we can work that out.”
When asked for specifics, Ipson said, “Well I think it’s evident that the community is not ready to give up the name.”
Adams noted that a study commissioned by the university indicates some Dixie State graduates have experienced challenges seeking employment or admission to graduate programs because of the university’s Dixie name.
But that survey also indicated that 70% of residents “weren’t in favor of it,” which Adams said is a “huge number.”
“That’s kind of like a neon light to me, that 70%,” Adams said, adding that he believes it’s important for universities to have the support of their communities.
Governor says name change is necessary
House Speaker Brad Wilson said he is concerned that students are “being penalized because there’s a great institution out there that’s trying its best to grow into a regional university and changing that name is absolutely in the best interest of those students.”
Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he hopes the Senate will not hold the bill and instead “take this issue up and vote on it and give the members a chance to debate this issue. That’s what we’re doing. We are here to debate the big issues of the day and to talk about the things that we need to do to move our state forward, including southern Utah.”
Wilson said lawmakers need to “keep our eye on the prize” and remember “what’s in the best interest of the students.”
Later in the day, Gov. Spencer Cox said he was not aware of reports that bill had stalled in the Senate.
“If it does pass, I would be prepared to sign it.” he said
“I guess if people just want it to be a parochial community college-type place then that’s certainly a direction, but if you want it to be a world-class university which has the potential to really bless the lives of students there, then getting a name that is more reflective of what the school does and what it represents is going to be important,” Cox said.
Cox said it is important to keep in mind that people who want to keep the name aren’t racially insensitive. The area’s name had nothing to do with the antebellum South or slavery, he said, “but more to do with climate and the way that southern Utah was was settled and the things that they were trying to grow there.”
But institutions of higher education change in scope, size and mission, he said, and “there comes a time when we have to reevaluate those things.”
Cox said there are “obviously racial connotations around the name Dixie” that have nothing to do with southern Utah.
“But if this university is going to become what we all believe it can become and what it wants to become, which I think is also very important, then a name change is going to happen. It just is, whether it happens now or it happens later, a change that reflects the mission of the university and a change that can signal to the rest of the world what it is that that university does,” he said.
The governor added that Dixie State University’s name “is incredibly confusing to people.” He said he gets questions about the university’s name “all the time.” Some people have asked him if the university is in Georgia.
“So that’s certainly not helpful, not to mention again the difficulties that we’ve heard from from real people who’ve graduated, they’re alumni from there, people who are looking for jobs and and the negative implications there,” he said.
DSU wants name change
The university issued a statement urging the Utah Senate to allow the bill to move forward in the legislative process. The session ends March 5.
“The Dixie State University name change recommendation was never intended to erase our great history but to create a brighter future for our students. In that spirit, university administration strongly feels this bill deserves to be discussed publicly on the Senate floor, where we are confident the bill has strong support.
“We believe that the Senate should fully hear and understand the intent, purpose and impacts of this recommendation on our students, school and state. The recommendation has been thoroughly vetted and received overwhelming support by the hundreds of experts in higher education, business and government who are tasked with watching out for the best interests of our schools and students, including a veto-proof majority vote from the Utah House of Representatives. The university is grateful for the many individuals who have weighed in on this difficult topic.”
In previous interviews and meetings, Williams said he did not seek to change the name but after hearing from multiple students that the university’s name is problematic for them as they seek admission to graduate schools or apply for jobs, he’s become convinced a change is needed.
Discussions about the name have been going on for 30 years but intensified following protests across the country over George Floyd’s death last summer while in police custody. Locally, Intermountain Healthcare changed the name of its hospital from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital, effective in January.
The university commissioned a study by the Cicero Group to consider the impacts of the name. It found the university’s name has become “increasingly problematic for our students and alumni” and has hindered the university’s ability to recruit students, faculty, staff and has limited its ability to build partnerships and obtain grants and funding.
“Branding decisions are not made on a majority-rules system. A strong brand name should not be a problem at all. No prospective students should dismiss Dixie State as an option purely because of the name,” Williams said.
According to the study, 42% of respondents from the university’s recruiting region outside of Utah and 27% of all alumni indicated that the Dixie name has a negative impact on their willingness to attend DSU or encourage a student to go there, he said.
“Similarly, as graduates enter the workforce, 22% of recent alumni living outside of Utah have had an employer express concern that Dixie is on their résumé. That is an unfair burden to place on students already navigating a competitive job market,” he said.
Anderson said the name Dixie, when understood in the context of Utah history, has a clear and simple explanation.
“Pioneers came here to grow cotton. It is really that simple. They battled a very, very difficult, harsh inhospitable environment to create what’s turned out to be a pretty good place thanks to air conditioning. ... The story sort of dislodges the change-the-name argument,” he said.
Over the years, Confederate symbols were commonplace on campus. One alumnus told lawmakers that the Confederate flag was a symbol on campus when she attended college.
In recent years, the university did away with its Rebels mascot, switching to the Trailblazers, and removing Confederate imagery from the campus, including a statue titled The Rebels, which depicted a horse and Confederate soldiers, one of whom carried a Confederate battle flag.
Anderson said those changes were made within the university community and were not a reaction to external forces.
“I think it’s an insensitive trade on history, which has been provoked by an artificial effort to comply with the cancel culture movement, because we don’t see any serious movement to get the name change around here by anybody except the president and a few of his leaders,” Anderson said.
Contributing: Katie McKellar