Dixie State University President Richard “Biff” Williams urged a swift conclusion to an ongoing process to consider a name change for the St. George university.
Williams, addressing the Utah Board of Higher Education on Friday, urge the board and the Utah Legislature to act quickly once the university’s board of trustees delivers its recommendations on the university’s name.
“There’s a lot of things happening in our city that shouldn’t be happening. I dealt with a suicide watch because somebody was targeted from one of these Facebook groups and it’s just really ugly,” Williams said. He did not elaborate.
University spokesperson Jyl Hall said in a statement that most community members engaged in the name change process have participated in “cordial and helpful discussions, survey participation and focus group involvement.”
“However, there have been select community members who have made targeted personal attacks publicly on students, employees, administration, trustees and businesses. This uncivil treatment has impacted the health and well-being of various members of our campus community and proven disruptive not only to the name recommendation process, but also to the role the university plays in the community.”
As the university continues to focus on the success of its students and university community, it plans to continue the name recommendation process in a respectful and productive manner, the statement said.
“Although the institution won’t further elaborate on specifics out of protection for members of the university community, Dixie State will continue to prioritize mental wellness and demonstrate compassion and appreciation for stakeholders,” the statement said.
Williams said the 19-member name recommendation committee appointed by the university’s trustees “is working really hard on this. They’re going to come up with a great name. I hope that we can get it to the state board quickly and we need to move on to the Legislature because it is taxing,” Williams said
Earlier in Friday’s meeting, the higher education board voted unanimously to approve a resolution of support for Williams, with board chairman Harris Simmons noting he “has been dealing with a lot of issues down there.”
The resolution states that Williams “has shown great fortitude as president and has navigated the university successfully through challenging issues.”
It spells out the university’s progress since Williams became president in 2014, such as the addition of 111 academic programs, a 41% increase in enrollment, a record number of degrees awarded, doubling of scholarship funds and the university’s move to Division I collegiate athletics.
The resolution also states “with a university so rooted in the community, he (Williams) has expertly balanced the needs of the campus community with those of southern Utah residents.”
Williams said the name change committee will forward its recommendations to the university’s trustees and then the state higher education board once a series of stakeholder meetings and focus groups conclude, likely within a couple weeks.
A recent online survey showed that nearly 47% of respondents prefer Dixie State University’s name as is.
According to aggregate results of the survey commissioned by the university, Dixie State emerged as the most commonly selected name followed by St. George University, Deseret State University, Red Rock University, the Utah Institute of Technology and Utah’s Dixie University.
A proposed name change for the university was one of the most contentious issues considered by Utah lawmakers during the 2021 general session.
A bill that created a name change process for the university passed by a wide margin in the Utah House of Representatives but stalled in the Utah Senate, primarily over concerns that the St. George community had not had sufficient input on the proposed change.
Lawmakers eventually passed a substituted version of HB278, which was described by legislative leaders as compromise legislation. Unlike the initial bill, which precluded the possibility of keeping the Dixie name, the bill passed by both legislative houses had no such requirement but will appropriate $500,000 for historical preservation on campus if the university trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education recommend to legislative leaders a name other than Dixie.
The names of public colleges and universities are established in state statute, which means only the Utah Legislature has the authority to name them. Under HB278, higher education officials are expected to deliver a recommendation to legislative leaders later this year.
Discussions about the university’s name have been going on for decades but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd’s murder last summer while in police custody in Minneapolis, spurring a national conversation about racial injustice.
Last summer, DSU administrators 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” due to racial connotations, and it has hindered the university’s ability to recruit students, faculty and staff.
Opponents countered that changing the university’s name was tantamount to cancel culture and that, historically, the area is known as Dixie because pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to the area to grow crops that were cultivated in the South, such as cotton.