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Committee recommends Utah Polytechnic State University as name change for Dixie State

New name would spotlight ‘unique’ role of learning by doing at open-enrollment university

Palm trees flank an entrance to Dixie State University in St. George.
An entrance sign at Dixie State University is pictured in St. George on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. A name recommendation committee meeting in St. George voted 11-3 Monday morning to put forward Utah Polytechnic State University as the next name for the university.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Utah Polytechnic State University, aka Utah Tech.

A new name for Dixie State University not only would send a message the university is inclusive, it would spotlight its unique role as a polytechnic university that is also open enrollment, university officials say.

“The objective is to weave all of this together — open access to an education that is hands on, that is applied, that is career focused. That’s the combination that I think that that will make us make this unique,” said Michael Lacourse, DSU’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.

On Monday, a name recommendation committee meeting in St. George voted 11-3 to select Utah Polytechnic State University as its preference for the next name for Dixie State University. The recommendations will be forwarded to the university trustees for further consideration.

Lacourse, meeting with the Deseret News editorial board later in the day, said that while the academic missions of technical or polytechnic universities in other parts of the country are well established and understood, Utahns may be unaccustomed to what polytechnic means.

Simply put, polytechnic means learning by doing, he said.

The university defines it by three other tenants, he said, which include career readiness, deep collaboration with industry “to ensure our programs continue to be relevant” and “going deeper into experiential learning,” Lacourse said.

The ultimate goal is that students are engaged in multiple experiential learning opportunities, which could include an internship, clinical rotation or student teaching, he said.

While the university has been building up its polytechnic focus, a new name for the university would further that work, said Julie Beck, chairwoman of the name recommendation committee and a DSU trustee.

The Utah Polytechnic State name “will establish the university as an institution that serves and benefits students from the entire state, while providing a broad local identifier to those outside of Utah. The inclusion of polytechnic highlights the university’s academic mission to be the nation’s first open, inclusive comprehensive polytechnic university. Under this academic focus the university combines active and applied learning with a strong foundation in liberal arts and sciences to prepare students to meet industry demands.”

The name will emphasize the comprehensive nature of the university’s more than 200 academic programs and follow the examples of universities such as Cal Poly, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech, she said.

It would also help leave behind problematic perceptions about the university’s Dixie name, which critics of the name change proposal said dates back to Latter-day Saint pioneers settling in the area to grow crops that were cultivated in the South such as cotton.

Patricia Jones, a committee member and a member of the Utah Board of Higher Education, said her thinking about the university’s name evolved over time.

“My personal journey was at first, why change the name? I mean that was my first reaction, but then it took a metamorphosis for me to be educated and understand the true pain that so many people felt when they heard the name Dixie. It means something different to people outside of this region and that was very important for me to learn,” she said.

Jones said the university has implemented applied learning “so to me, it perfectly aligns with the direction that Dixie State University is currently going. I think that’s extremely important,” she said.

That said, a lot of work remains to educate the university’s constituencies and the public what polytechnic means, she said.

“I think this is a communication issue,” Jones said.

The committee also voted to recommend Utah Tech as a preferred nickname for the university.

Committee member Shawn Newell, also a member of the Utah Board of Higher Education, expressed concerns about the “tech” name.

“Here in Utah, we have a number of institutions that are technical colleges and I worry about the confusion with those colleges right now that are in place,” he said.

Utah has eight public technical colleges, which include Bridgerland, Davis, Dixie, Mountainland, Ogden-Weber, Southwest, Tooele and Uintah Basin.

Others said in Utah, shortening the university’s name to Utah Poly could be construed to refer to polygamy or Polynesians.

Committee member and Dixie State student Deven Osborne, a wide receiver on the university’s football team, said he is from California, where there are numerous high schools with a polytechnic name and emphasis.

Still, for a football jersey, he prefers Utah Tech.

“I like Utah Tech. It’s kind of simple, to the point,” he said.

The trustees’ recommendations will be forwarded to the Utah Board of Higher Education, the governing board over the state’s eight technical colleges and eight degree-granting colleges and universities. It, in turn, will send its recommendations to the Utah Legislature. State lawmakers have the sole authority to name public colleges and universities.

Jordon Sharp, DSU’s chief marketing and communications officer, said the polytechnic name presents challenges and opportunities for the university.

He noted a map on the university’s website that indicates the location of each polytechnic or technological university in the United States.

“There is a big hole right in our region and surrounding region and the middle of that hole is St George, Utah. So the challenge is, of course, because we haven’t had that in the past, there’s some education that needs to take place, but at the same time, it’s why Dixie State has this great opportunity to fulfill that need. It will be our job to start telling that story but it’s something we’re excited to do,” he said.

When the Legislature considered a proposal to change the university name during the 2021 general session, some alumni and St. George community members said that they had not had sufficient input. HB278 called for an extensive public process.

Beck said the process that informed the committee’s decision was “meticulous” and professional.

“We started by listening and listening and listening,” she said, adding that it had only been until the last couple of meetings that committee members had shared their perspectives.

“I would be willing to hold it up to any naming group nationwide, worldwide. We’ve had honorable people participating, and I think that the process has brought about an excellent result,” she said.

While a majority of committee members voted for the Utah Polytech recommendation, their votes were not unanimous and three committee members left the meeting before votes were cast.

Randy Wilkinson, one of the three committee members who left the meeting, acknowledged the hard work that had gone into the committee’s process but “with all of that good effort it has been intentionally wrapped in a predisposed strategy to demean, disparage and defeat that Dixie name and minimize adherence to the history, heritage and traditions of the residents of southwestern Utah, or better said, the people of Utah’s Dixie.”

Wilkinson said the group agrees that intolerance and prejudice should be defeated wherever it exists.

“You all know what Utah’s Dixie is. It is (a) welcoming, caring and inclusive place. If you really think that there is a racist bone in our community’s body as a reason to change the name of our university then you don’t know Dixie. The disregard for the residents of southwestern Utah has been rampant. We’re leaving this group to stand with what we think is right,” Wilkinson said.

Changing the university’s name has been discussed for decades but gained traction last year after the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide social reckoning over race, discrimination and social justice.