‘We all have connections here’: Dixie State president, stakeholders speak on university name change

ST. GEORGE — Following Monday’s announcement that the Dixie State University Board of Trustees voted unanimously to recommend an official name change to the university, DSU President Richard B. Williams and other stakeholders spoke about their decision, citing local concerns as well as the results of a recent impact study.

Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

“It’s been an emotional day,” Williams told St. George News regarding Monday’s Board of Trustee’s vote. “It was a day where the trustees had to make a very difficult decision. I think it’s been emotional for all of us.”

The vote came after a two-hour meeting in which members of the Board of Trustees were presented with the findings of an impact study commissioned by the university in August and conducted by the independent consulting company Cicero Group.

The task of the study was to meaningfully measure the impacts, both positive and negative, of the name “Dixie” on the university.

Based primarily on the findings of the study, the Dixie State University governing bodies – which comprises the Board of Trustees, President’s Cabinet, University Council, Staff Association Board, Faculty Senate and Student Executive Council – jointly recommended an institutional name change for Dixie State University.

Some of the key data points from the comprehensive impact study included the following, which an announcement from DSU said demonstrate both the great support for and barriers to the name:

  • 25% of Southwestern Utah, 44% of Greater Utah and 56% of our out-of-state recruiting areas believe the name will have a negative impact on the institution’s general brand.
  • 54% of faculty and staff and 36% of current students believe the name will have a negative impact on the institution’s general brand.
  • 62% of Southwestern Utah and 46% of Greater Utah believe there will be greater brand appeal if the name remains.
  • 22% of recent graduates looking for jobs outside of Utah have had an employer express concern that Dixie is on their résumé.
  • 42% of respondents from our recruiting region and 22% of respondents from Utah say the name makes them less likely to attend DSU. 
  • 52% of recent alumni who live outside of the state feel the name has a negative impact on the brand.
  • 17% of our community members, 38% of Utahns and 52% of people outside of the state feel uncomfortable wearing DSU apparel outside of Utah; 47% of recent alumni who live outside of the state feel uncomfortable wearing their alma mater’s brand.

The full impact report can be read here.

“Although we deeply believe moving toward an institutional name change is in the best interest of our campus community,” the university announcement stated, “we understand this change will be difficult for many since the name has been cherished in our region since 1857, when 38 families settled Southwest Utah to grow cotton.”

The announcement went to say the following:

 We share in the profound pride of the local meaning of Dixie that embodies the region’s pioneering heritage of grit, service, and sacrifice. However, the word Dixie has a national meaning that is vastly different from the local understanding of the term. The data shows that Dixie means the Confederacy to 33% of Southern Utah residents, 41% of Utahns, and 64% of respondents from our recruiting region.

Though Williams said the name “Dixie,” at least as it is understood in the Southern Utah region, is something that is near and dear to the heart of the trustees, the decision to recommend a name change is something he believes is in the best interest of the students.

2016 file photo of Dixie State University’s iconic “D” on Black Hill, St. George, Utah  | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

“We just want to do what’s best for students,” Williams said, “but at the same time we don’t want to give the impression that we don’t care about the community.”

In making the decision Williams said he understands that some people will interpret it as not caring about the community’s heritage, but he said that is not the case. What is known as the “Dixie Spirit” will not change, and the “D” on Black Hill will remain as a landmark. Williams said they are working on trying to protect it as a historical marker.

“We all have connections here,” Williams said. “But it also makes us very emotional to see that something that we feel is innocent is hurting students.”

Board of Trustees Vice Chair Tiffany Wilson made similar remarks in a press conference Monday.

“What it came down to for me was really looking at what my commitment and my responsibility is here at the university,” she said, adding that that commitment is to the students and their well-being.

Wilson said she is a Southern Utah native who attended “all the Dixie schools,” and though the name is something she feels a strong connection to, she understands that outside of the Southern Utah region, the meaning is not the same, and therefore it has the potential to hurt students and their future prospect for jobs.

“I have to look and say, ‘If this hurts them, then I have to support the potential of a change,'” she said.

In addition to potentially hurting future prospects of students and recent alumni, the study also showed that prospective students were less likely to choose Dixie State University because of the name.

Dixie State University President Richard Williams poses in the administration offices, St. George, Utah, Dec. 14, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

Nearly 40% of respondents said they would not consider an institution named “Dixie,” Williams said.

Considering the national landscape and the downward trend of college enrollment, Williams said the university needs to be proactive in addressing the name.

“Moving forward, if we don’t address this, we’ll have a real issue with our students,” he said.

So what are the next steps?

The recommendation from the board will now be forwarded to the Utah State Board of Higher Education, which will review the recommendation and decide whether to propose a name change to the state Legislature. The Legislature will have the final say, as the university’s name is in state statute.

As far as a new name, Dixie State University Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jordan Sharp said in Monday’s press conference that they haven’t begun the process of choosing a new name, but typically there are three different choices in naming a university.

The first being something that ties the university to the geographic region in which it is located. This could be particularly important for Dixie State University as information from the impact study indicated that the name “Dixie” caused confusion to respondents outside of Utah, who thought that the institution was located in the southern part of the United States.

The other two ways universities are typically named, Sharp said, are by paying tribute to the founder of the school or by characterizing the school’s focus. In the case of Dixie State University, information from a press release said that the school looks to have a reputation as a  STEM-focused polytechnic institution.

“Looking forward, study respondents indicate academic reputation, making the university a welcoming/inclusive place for all, enabling students to obtain jobs after graduation and growing its reputation as a STEM-focused polytechnic institution are the most important factors to the future success of the university,” the university announcement said. “Through an extensive five-year strategic plan, DSU has been formulating its academic direction to become the nation’s first and only open, inclusive, comprehensive, polytechnic university.”

As they work toward that goal, Williams said that education will be at the forefront of the university’s priorities while honoring the heritage of those that came before and established the institution.

“We want to honor that heritage by making this the best possible school,” Williams said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!