SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House gave final passage Wednesday to legislation that calls for a public process in southwestern Utah to consider a name change for Dixie State University.
The House voted 48-23 to concur with a substitute version of HB278, which doesn’t expressly exclude a university name with Dixie in it but says the state will appropriate $500,000 to help preserve the institution’s history if the DSU trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education recommend a name that does not include the name Dixie.
The bill now goes to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox who can sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
Some House members expressed frustration that the original legislation, which passed handily in the House, specifically said the Dixie name would not be part of the university’s name but the St. George campus could be referred to as the Dixie campus.
Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, the lone House member from southern Utah who voted for the original bill, said the substitute bill “is not what I wanted, obviously.”
Supporters of the name change “are trying to help the students and send them from the university with a name that doesn’t carry with it some negative baggage, especially if they’re looking for jobs outside of the area,” Last said.
But Last said it was better to pass the bill and “send a message that we expect the community to go to work and come up with a suitable name.”
Earlier, both the university trustees and higher education board unanimously passed resolutions calling for a name change, but since names of public colleges and universities are part of state statute, changes must be approved by the Utah Legislature.
The original bill sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, South Ogden, sought to authorize a name change process, teeing up a community process to come up with alternatives to Dixie State University.
The substituted version passed Wednesday by the House and earlier in the day, the Utah Senate, calls for the trustees and higher education board to form a committee to recommend a name for the university. It sets out a list of constituencies to serve on the committee such as students, university personnel, residents of southwestern Utah and institutional partners to serve on the committee.
The committee will make recommendations to the trustees, which will decide whether to make recommendations to the Utah Board of Higher Education.
The bill states “the board of trustees shall ensure that the name reflects the institution’s mission and significance to the surrounding region, and enables the institution to compete and be recognized nationally.”
Last explained, “It’s got to go back past the trustees. It’s got to go back past the Board of Higher Education. You ask yourself, is it likely that Dixie will be in the name if that happens?”
The university released a statement following the bill’s passage that thanked key lawmakers “for their leadership in crafting and supporting this legislation. We acknowledge this has been a difficult yet important process, but we look forward to the opportunity to continue this dialogue. We are eager to work with Governor Cox as this legislation awaits his signature. We are confident that we can identify a name that enables our institution to move forward in the very best interest of our students and community.”
Conversations regarding the Dixie State name and identity have occurred for more than 30 years, the statement said.
“Continuous discussions involving the name have not stemmed from the local meaning of Dixie but are due to the unalterable national meaning tied to the Confederate South, Civil War, and slavery.
“As Dixie State University grows in size, stature, and influence on a national stage, the impacts of the double-meaning cannot be overlooked and more in-depth discussions are necessary to find lasting solutions.”
It continued, “The love, respect, and understanding of the local term Dixie was never in question. ... Heritage is deeply important to our school and community, and we are profoundly appreciative of the long-lasting support we have received from our partners.”
While some House members balked at extending the process further under the substituted legislation, Miles said it keeps the process on track. After a public process, a recommendation for a new name needs to be delivered to the Legislative Management Committee on or before Nov. 1.
Last, who is DSU’s vice president of advancement, said lawmakers essentially had two choices — either “vote this down and go back through hell for another year and who knows what we end up with,” or pass this bill.
“Continuous discussions involving the name have not stemmed from the local meaning of Dixie but are due to the unalterable national meaning tied to the Confederate South, Civil War, and slavery. As Dixie State University grows in size, stature, and influence on a national stage, the impacts of the double-meaning cannot be overlooked and more in-depth discussions are necessary to find lasting solutions.” — Dixie State University statement
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, spoke in favor of the bill, because the process will increase the involvement “of locals who feel so strongly about the heritage of this area and about the name. No one can make guarantees of what the outcome will be but what we can say with this change is that it broadens the process and will become more inclusive and more involved in respecting those who feel strongly about the Dixie name.”
Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said she preferred the original legislation.
“Now we’re using half a million dollars on something that already has had a lot of time and resources invested in it to a body, the Dixie board of trustees, who has already voted on this and would like to move forward,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the Utah Senate voted 26-3 in support of HB278.
No one in the Senate spoke against the bill, but some, like Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, expressed frustration that the push to change the university’s name was tantamount to cancel culture.
“Mr. Potato Head is now Potato Head. OK, Dr. Seuss is on his deathbed. OK. Where does this stop?” he said.
But others, like Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said HB278 is “the right thing to do. Ultimately, what we’re doing here is we are being responsive to the young people, the students of Dixie State University.”
He noted revisions in the bill that “speak to the value of this (legislative) process.”
“We’re not trying to cancel anything,” Kitchen said. “In fact, we’re putting it back to the community to engage in a process and empower them to move forward with the direction that makes the most sense for the university and the community.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, noted that Yale University was founded by a slave trader.
“Why do we have to change the name of Dixie State, and Yale, named after a slave trader, gets a pass? I would really like someone to ... explain that to me,” Weiler said. However, he voted for the bill.
The revised bill requires no particular name and does not preclude the name Dixie. The original bill passed by the House of Representatives on a vote of 51-20 on Feb. 10.
Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, Senate floor sponsor of the legislation, spoke about the community’s deep attachment and support of Dixie College, which later became a university.
“Several times, at least twice during its lifetime, the people of St. George came together, mortgaged their homes, to keep that institution alive,” Ipson said.
While the debate over the name change has at times been contentious, Ipson said, “I’m just glad that we will have this opportunity that the people in the university, the people in the community, the alumni, will have a chance to come together and share their Dixie spirit and come to a conclusion. And I can tell you as the wild man from Dixie, I’m committed to make this happen,” he said.
Supporters of the change say the name “Dixie” is harming students as they seek graduate school admission and employment.
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.
Discussions about the name have been going on for decades 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.
Tim Anderson, a St. George attorney who opposes the name change, said Latter-day Saint pioneers came to the area to grow cotton, which is the origin of the name.
“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,” Anderson said in a previous interview.
In recent years, the university has done 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.