Utah Polytechnic State University is officially dead.
The Dixie State University board of trustees voted unanimously Tuesday in St. George to recommend the name Utah Tech University to the Utah Board of Higher Education instead. If that board backs it, it must then be voted on by the Utah Legislature, possibly later this year if not during the 2022 legislative session.
At the same time, the name Dixie may not be completely dead yet. The trustees also voted to recommend that the St. George campus of the university could be renamed the Dixie campus if the university is renamed as a part of the heritage component of HB278, which outlined the process to change the name of Dixie State.
David Clark, board of trustees chairman, said after the meeting the board made its decision based on what trustees believed was best for the future of the university.
“We are not turning our back on our heritage, but we are turning our focus forward and we are beginning to look at the students and the needs and the jobs that are open and available just within 300 miles of St. George,” he said, noting there were thousands of high-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs available nearby.
“We need to understand where the opportunities are and provide an education for young folks — or even if they’re not so young anymore — to head into those fields and find that success,” he added. “For me, it was a pretty simple equation. Am I looking forward or am I looking backward? And I chose forward.”
The trustees’ decision came after a lengthy, and at times, passionate meeting with the Dixie State University Name Recommendation Committee on Tuesday. The committee voted on June 14 in favor of Utah Polytechnic State University with a nickname preference of Utah Tech. However, the full name was met with pushback almost immediately, with one online petition against the name getting close to 18,000 signees between June 15 and Tuesday.
While the meeting was public, the trustees pointed out it wasn’t a public hearing and they would not take comment from anyone except those they called on. Many in attendance wore red shirts, some with “Save Dixie” printed on them. The name, which refers to Utah’s southwest region but also has ties to the Confederacy in U.S. history, has been associated with the school since 1913.
Randy Wilkinson, who was on the renaming committee but left in protest prior to the vote on June 14, was one of the people in attendance who pleaded with the trustees to keep the current name.
“As I was appointed to the committee, I felt very strongly about Dixie, that name and what it meant and what it meant for this area for a long, long time, and for this institution,” he said, adding that his feeling became “stronger and stronger” during the time he served on the committee.
But the prospect of keeping the university name wasn’t considered much during the meeting. Instead, most of the focus turned to Utah Tech.
Penny Mills, Dixie State student body president, proposed that polytechnic be removed from the name before it was sent to state leaders.
Tiffany Wilson, trustees vice chairwoman, agreed. She said that the proposed name seemed like a good idea based on the mission of the university, but it just didn’t work because it was a mouthful.
“It was very clear that Utah Polytechnic State University was an epic failure and we are willing to admit that,” she said, as the gallery applauded in agreement.
Clark explained after the meeting that the trustees agreed with the reasons behind the Utah Polytechnic State University recommendation, but found Utah Tech to be the simpler version of promoting the same mission. The name, he said, still distinguishes the university as a polytechnic institution but offers a less-confusing name.
When asked if the name gave enough significance to the southern Utah region it’s located in, trustee Deven Macdonald said the trustees wanted to continue showcasing the university’s mission as a Utah school.
“Really, for us, it was the biggest name that represents the focus, the emphasis and the location of the institution so it accomplished all of our objectives out of the gate,” he said.
The trustees also dismissed the notion that students weren’t involved in the renaming process. Wilson said more than over 3,000 students participated in surveys and that many of its focus groups contained students, with their feedback turned into the data that went into the decision process. The survey was also sent out to every registered student.
Both Clark and Wilson said they believe that most people who opposed the process likely won’t support any new university name brought forward.
“It’s impossible for us to please everyone as much as we’d like to,” Wilson said. “There’s always going to be someone who believes they aren’t heard simply because the outcome didn’t come out the way they were hoping it would.”
The Utah System of Higher Education has until Nov. 1 to have a name for the Legislature. Lawmakers could vote on a name later this year if a special session is called; otherwise, it won’t be voted on until the next legislative session that begins in January 2022.
“We’ve handed the football off and they’re headed, hopefully, toward the end zone,” Clark said.
The ‘Dixie’ campus?
Another component of the renaming bill may come into play soon. HB278 also calls for the formation of a heritage committee should the board of trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education recommend a name without Dixie in it. The committee will review ideas for preserving pieces of the university’s history.
Renaming the campus itself Dixie is one of the items they may now consider. The trustees voted 9-1 in favor of that recommendation to be considered as a part of the university’s heritage.
Clark explained that doesn’t mean the St. George campus will be called the Dixie campus, but that they are leaving that option on the table for the heritage committee. He views it as “an olive branch” extended to the people who voiced opposition during the rename process. The Dixie State University Name Recommendation Committee previously rejected a similar recommendation earlier this month.
Those who support or oppose the term Dixie are still divided over any use of it, so it’s unclear if that proposal will go through.
“We’ll see how its reception is,” Clark said. “We’ll see how it works out. We’re still a little bit ahead of ourselves because this is the legacy committee’s duty and responsibility. All we’ve done is, ‘Will you please consider?’”