Utah House votes to remove ‘Dixie’ from university name

Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | File photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In a 51-20 vote, the Utah House of Representatives voted Wednesday, during the 2021 general Legislative session, to create a process for Dixie State University to undergo an institutional name change.

File photo: Counter-protesters in favor of Dixie State University’s name change hold signs on campus in St. George, Utah on Jan. 11, 2021 | Photo by Megan Webber, St. George News

Sponsored by Rep. Kelly B. Miles, R-Ogden, House Bill 278 Name Change Process for Dixie State University, requires that the Dixie State Board of Trustees, in consultation with the Utah State Board of Higher Education develop a process to select a new name for the educational institution and recommend it to the state Legislature.

According to language in the bill, the process will include the input and collaboration of the public including residents of the Southern Utah community, institutional partners and university faculty, staff, students and alumni.

The bill further states that the institution’s new name does not contain the term “Dixie” but does reflect the university’s mission as well as its significance to the region and state.

Both the Dixie State University Board of Trustees and the Utah State Board of Higher Education unanimously recommended the university undergo the name change to remove the term “Dixie” after reviewing the results of a commissioned study conducted by the Cicero group, which measured the impact, both negative and positive, of the term on the university, its students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community at-large.

Below are some of the key data points from the comprehensive study:

  • 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.

Prior to the bill being debated on the House floor, the bill was discussed in a meeting of the House Education Committee Feb. 3 in which Dixie State University President Richard Williams said that while he did not seek to change the name, he believes it must change in order to move the university forward.

“After a lot of listening, after a lot of thought, after a lot of study and contemplation, I not only feel that we should change the name, but we must change our name in order to move the university forward,” Williams said in the committee meeting.

Utah State Representative Kelly B. Miles, R-Ogden is pictured in this professional photo, location and date not specified | Profile photo courtesy Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

The bill passed with favorable recommendation out of the committee and was sent to the House floor.

The university recently completed a five-year strategic plan, which includes a vision to be a comprehensive polytechnic university, giving students practical education for the job market, Miles said from the House floor regarding his sponsorship of the bill.

“It’s (DSU) become a comprehensive regional university with an exciting future. It now needs a name that reflects that enhanced mission and the offerings and the potential,” Miles said.

Though the name change has had unanimous support from DSU and state higher educational governing bodies, it has been met with a lot of opposition and emotion, largely from residents of Southern Utah, who have expressed support for the name to remain the same and have said that they feel their voices on the issue are not being heard.

Rep. Brad Last, who represents Washington County told St. George News that in his nearly two decades of serving the public, only two other bills in his recollection have seen as much emotion or as many emails.

That could be in large part due to the fact that the term “Dixie” has a very different connotation to the people of Southern Utah than it does nationwide. Where locally the name is a treasured part of the area’s heritage, nationally it has ties to racial disparity and slavery.

“The ‘Dixie’ name is really important to us locally. It means something special,” Last said.

To many, including Tim Anderson, an area attorney, former Dixie Foundation board member and member of the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, “Dixie” is synonymous with the pioneer ancestry of the area.

Undated 2021 photo of Dixie State University, St. George, Utah | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

“Utah’s Dixie has a name and it has a very deep profound history of people struggling against the odds,” Anderson said, adding that the people who came to Southern Utah to grow cotton did not live long and they lived in very harsh conditions and yet were still able to establish a thriving community in the desert.

“They came here to grow cotton. This isn’t about the Civil War or racial injustice in the country. Utah’s Dixie is not ground zero for those issues,” Anderson said.

That said, results from the Cicero study indicated that the term does have a harmful effect on the university, particularly the students and their future prospects, and it is those students that, Williams said in the House Education Committee meeting, were the main reason for the name change recommendation.

The full recording of the committee meeting can be found here.

‘Dixie Campus’

In an effort to preserve the historical significance of the name, Last put forth an amendment to the bill that would allow the main campus of the university to be known as the “Dixie Campus” while still removing the moniker from the university’s title.

Last called it an olive branch to those who had been opposed to the name change and also one that makes sense given the university also has a Hurricane Center, a Kanab Center and is looking to build an extension in the Southern Parkway area, which would be the Southern Campus.

But other Southern Utah representatives including Rep. Walt Brooks and Rep. Travis Seegmiller stood in opposition to the bill, largely due to the lack of community involvement.

During the debate on the floor Wednesday, Seegmiller made a motion to strike line 51 from the bill, which would have allowed the name change process to continue but not eliminate the term “Dixie” from possibly being part of the university in what he called the “part of the bill that puts the cart before the horse.”

“This is the line that says, ‘Even though we’re imposing a collaborative process here in the future with the public, nevertheless the outcome will already be determined,'” Seegmiller said, adding that he has never interacted with and spoken with more people as a representative than he has on this issue.

In an email to St. George News, Seegmiller said the following:

I am opposed to both the timing and the process whereby this abrupt name-change effort is being pursued. This is no way to bring people together to achieve lasting change for good! The people of Southern Utah deserve far better treatment than this!   The 178,000+ “locals” of our region deserve to be truly heard and truly heeded, via a fair, transparent and collaborative process, not a brief, short-circuited process that instead has caused the overwhelming majority of local people who care about this issue to feel ignored, unheard, avoided, or even worse, mocked and scorned!  All of this has caused true outrage to brew here in Southern Utahn, and it didn’t need to happen this way!

Seegmiller’s hope in making the motion to strike the line was to put the process in place but not enforce the outcome of eliminating “Dixie” as a possible name from the top down without community input, however the motion failed.

Anderson said he was disappointed in the House vote but praised the efforts of Seegmiller, Brooks and other representatives who spoke against the bill and said that he appreciates their efforts to represent the citizens.

Anderson added that he feels the university has gone rogue and does not have broad support from the community.

A statement on the university’s website said the following regarding Wednesday’s vote:

Dixie State University is deeply appreciative of the Utah House of Representatives’ support for our students, demonstrated by passing House Bill 278, Name Change Process for Dixie State University. We are dedicated to offering personalized and engaged learning experiences that prepare students for rewarding careers and are grateful to our state representatives for voting to remove barriers that the current institutional name presents. Dixie State looks forward to continuing to work with the Utah Senate as the bill moves to that body. We are mindful that this has been a challenging topic for our community for many years. We appreciate the many individuals who have weighed in regarding this recommendation and who continue to support our institution and students. We are confident that with the help of our community and partners, we will continue to grow a premier institution of higher learning and offer our students unparalleled opportunities, all while preserving and strengthening our heritage.

The house passed the bill with 51 yay votes, 20 nay votes. There were 4 no-votes.

Washington County Reps., Lowry Snow, Seegmiller and Brooks along with Iron County Rep. Rex Shipp all voted nay. Last voted yay.

The bill will now move to the senate. If passed, the process for the name change will begin and the new name will be brought to the Utah State Board of Higher Education. If approved, the new name will be brought to the Education Interim Committee, which has to be done by Nov. 21, 2021, Miles said from the floor. Once approved by the committee the final vote on the name will take place either in a special Legislative session or in the 2022 general session one year from now.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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