ST. GEORGE – In the wake of the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and subsequent removal of imagery and items related to the Confederacy from public places, retailers and elsewhere, the debate over the name of Dixie State University has been reignited.
Earlier this month, Dannelle Larsen-Rife, a psychology professor at DSU, wrote a guest editorial in The Spectrum that has since rekindled the conversation about the Dixie name and what is means to different people.
In an interview with St. George News Thursday, Larsen-Rife said she understands the connection people have with the Dixie name as it is applied in Southern Utah and honors the pioneer heritage. However, outside of Utah, she said, the name is often connected with the Confederacy, slavery and racism.
It is not a name that should be applied to a public institution of higher learning, Larsen-Rife said.
“I’m not advocating to change everything in the community,” she said, “just on campus.”
What’s in a name?
Two years ago, Dixie State College had the opportunity to change its name as it approached university status. There was great support for Dixie State University over alternatives like University of St. George, St. George State University and Red Rock University.
The Utah Higher Education Board of Regents voted to approve the school’s new name and university status in January 2013. While all supported the school receiving university status, two of the regents voted against the measure because of the Dixie name.
One of those regents was Rev. France Davis, who was recognized as having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While the college was moving towards a university, Davis said he wondered about the name.
“I wonder if we miss an opportunity to move forward on the name …,” he said, “I wonder if the word ‘Dixie’ might be more fittingly changed to a more fresh or new word.”
For many in Southern Utah, the term “Dixie” primarily relates to the Mormon pioneers sent to the area for the purpose of growing cotton. They also had their own connections to the South. While the cotton enterprise was ultimately abandoned, the region has become known as “Utah’s Dixie.”
Long-time residents will also speak to what they call “the Dixie Spirit” when invoking the Dixie name and what it means to them. Hard work, unity, inclusion, community, tradition, heritage and acceptance are often equated with the “Dixie Spirit” by long-term residents.
They see Dixie in a positive light as it relates to local history and heritage and not a harbinger of racism and hate.
“It’s who we are,” former DSU student Danny Shakespeare said in 2012 while the debate of the Dixie name was in full swing. “We’re the Dixie of Southern Utah. It’s so important to us. And to hear them say it’s ‘racist’ and stuff like that, I mean, I never would have thought that it was racist.”
Another such view was presented in a Letter to the Editor from DSU alumnus Chet Norman published Friday. In it, Norman wrote:
The Dixie Spirit is truly what helped inspire the founders of St. George and encouraged them to look forward in hopes of a positive future. This makes up everything about Dixie, St. George, Dixie State University, and the people it encompasses.
However, the view is not shared by everyone. Outside of Southern Utah, Dixie can have darker connotations.
Larsen-Rife compared the Dixie name to the swastika. Before the symbol was used by the Nazis, it was seen and used as a positive symbol by many cultures, she said.
“But since the Nazis adopted it, we can’t use that symbol anymore,” she said. “… Once it adopts a new meaning, you don’t use it, and that’s what’s happened with Dixie State University. It has closely been identified with Confederacy and with the South and white supremacy.”
Loss of credibility?
While DSU has removed Confederate imagery from the campus in recent years — such as removing the statue of a solider waving the Confederate battle flag and renaming the sports teams from the Dixie Rebels to the Red Storm — Larsen-Rife said the lingering name isn’t doing the university any favors, and that it is actually undermining the credibility of students and faculty.
Larsen-Rife said a DSU faculty member told her that, while attending a conference where he was to conduct a research presentation, people in the audience laughed and snickered when it was announced he was from the university.
“He knew from that point on he lost credibility in the topic and the research presentation wasn’t what it could have been,” she said.
The faculty member’s experience wasn’t an isolated incident either, Larsen-Rife said. Presenters in academic settings have had to explain the Dixie name to their contemporaries “and the explanation is never good enough,” she said. “When you explain it just means ‘south,’ people just don’t buy it. It’s not acceptable.”
The name has also been a roadblock in recruiting faculty to the university, Larsen-Rife said, as other teachers do not want to be associated with the name. She also contends that graduates who have Dixie State University on their resumés may be adversely affected because of it.
“If they want to stay here and get jobs locally, maybe that doesn’t harm them, but I think, on a larger scale, I think it certainly can,” she said.
“At this institution, they adopted a Confederate identity in the late 1950s and through now we still have Confederate imagery on campus,” Larsen-Rife said.
Although a Confederate-themed statue was removed and the sports teams renamed, examples of lingering Confederate imagery Larsen-Rife pointed out include the names of student housing units like the Shiloh dorms and Rebels Roost and the Rebels Forever Memory Garden on campus.
“We acknowledge that Confederate symbols were once used by the student body,” Steven Caplin, then chairman of DSU’s Board of Trustees, said during the regents meeting in 2012.
Those symbols were introduced in the 1950s as a part of the college’s sports program and no racism was intended by them, he said. Those symbols have since been “retired” from the school.
“These symbols are part of our past, but not our origin,” Caplin said.
Since Larsen-Rife’s guest-editorial was published, the topic of the Dixie name has been covered by local and state media and has also been picked up by the Associated Press, circulating as far as the Daily Mail in England.
Opinion columns and letters to the editor addressing the topic have been published in the area’s newspapers while Facebook pages dedicated to the same have arisen.
A Facebook page dedicated to retaining the Dixie name is “We Are Dixie.” Set up by Norman, who wrote the letter to the editor published by St. George News Friday, the page has gained 3,000 likes as of Saturday morning since its inception Tuesday.
In support of a name change is the “St. George State University” Facebook page. The page, which has been active since July 9, has thus far garnered nearly 90 likes.
DSU students interviewed by St. George News did not support the idea of a name change. One, however, did support the removal of Confederate themes from the campus.
“I think the Dixie name is fine,” DSU student Nathan Moses said. “I think getting rid of things like the Confederate soldier statue and Confederate rebel references in terms of relating to the Confederacy is good … I think it has no place.”
Another DSU student, Russell Sala of Salt Lake City, said, “I, for one, think the name should remain. I have no serious issues with it myself … I find it very unfortunate that we live in a very politically correct society today. So if you are for it, you may be viewed as a bigot. And if you are against it because of today’s society, then you may be viewed as a hero.”
Larsen-Rife said her goal in revisiting the topic of the Dixie name was to get people talking about it again — a goal that has succeeded.
“I think having this discussion is important,” she said.
For its part, the university has no plans to change the name at this time, DSU spokesmen Steve Johnson said in a statement.
- Letter to the Editor: We are Dixie
- Letter to the Editor: ‘It’s pretty sad to rewrite history
- On the EDge: Time to decide on DSU name
- Utah Board of Regents brings DSC one step closer to Dixie State University; STGnews videocast
- DSC Trustees unanimous: University status, ‘Dixie State University;’ STGnews videocast
- Council resolution recommends ‘Dixie’ remain in university name
- Dixie-ites dead set on name retention at Sorenson forum; STGnews Videocast
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