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Student, faculty dissent a new challenge for Dixie, community

Published December 24, 2012 8:21 am

Free speech • Opening the campus to greater diversity — a necessary step for becoming a university — has spurred conflict and tension.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After Dixie State College officials removed a statue of Confederate soldiers on Dec. 6, senior Greg Noel told KSL-TV that the school must address the school's apparent history of racial insensitivity or the controversy "will foster more issues and more situations and more conflict until it just bursts."

An African-American senior from Las Vegas who serves as a peer adviser and as student vice president for clubs, Noel believed he was exercising his right to free expression. But he later learned his televised remarks prompted administrators to investigate whether he had violated school policies.

The incident reflects the pressure some campus sources say Dixie's dean of students, Del Beatty, is putting on elected student leaders, such as Noel and president Brody Mikesell, to tone down their advocacy for retiring their school's century-old Dixie name.

Administrators, however, deny they are pressuring students. Vice president for student services Frank Lojko, who oversees Beatty, denied administrators probed Noel's KSL remarks. But a Dixie staffer, who asked to not be named for fear of retaliation, confirmed the scrutiny of Noel's interview.

The issue of renaming the school — slated to become a university next year — continues to rile the St. George community. Some argue the name can be construed as an affiliation with the racist history of the American South, while others, who associate the name with southern Utah's pioneer heritage, say it binds the campus with the community.

On Thursday, dozens of residents attended what had been planned as a closed meeting hosted by the college's branding consultant, demanding the school's future name include Dixie, according to local news reports.

"I'm tired of people coming from outside the area and bringing their prejudice and hates and dislikes and trying to throw it on us because that's never been what Dixie was all about," Mayor Dan McArthur told the St. George News. "Dixie is a place we're all proud of."

Clash of ideas • Just as Dixie completes the academic steps for its upgrade, the college — and the community — face vigils, criticism and other expressions of student dissent that have been a fact of life at U.S. universities since the Berkeley sit-ins of the 1960s. Hostile community members have threatened to withdraw donations and heckled students and faculty who question the Dixie name.

The same faculty members recruited to diversify the campus as part of its university aspirations are being derided as outsiders who should leave if they don't like the school's culture.

The collapse of civility prompted faculty leadership to call for respectful dialogue.

"We desire and hope that all people who have an interest in the naming issue, or any other matter of importance concerning the college, will be allowed to speak their minds without fearing personal, academic, or professional repercussions," the faculty senate executive committee posted Dec. 10 on a faculty list-serve.

Many professors on the list-serve expressed dismay with the vitriol directed at those who have raised concerns about the Dixie name.

"I am frankly tired and disgusted with being labeled by many as an 'outsider' and troublemaker whose opinion does not count and who should pack my things and leave," wrote biology professor Marius van der Merwe, a South African. "It is as if a section in our community tries to defend themselves against accusations of being intolerant by showing everyone just how intolerant they really can be."

Danelle Larsen-Rife, a new psychology professor who is among the few Latino faculty members, says she also has been urged to leave.

Changing minds • Roi Wilkins, an African-American student from Los Angeles, said the Dixie name had bothered him since he arrived on campus four years ago. But he was always told there were no racial connotations to the nickname for Utah's southwest corner.

"Then I heard the yearbook was called The Confederate. That's interesting," he said. "I went to the library [this year] and picked random years, 1965 to 1968, and found some horrific things. One page said, 'What would the South be without slavery?' "

The books feature numerous images of students in black face, holding mock slave auctions, dressed in Confederate uniforms and staging parade floats and skits that seem to ridicule blacks, such as a crowd in black face behind a white student dressed as a Col. Sanders-type figure.

"In 1968 they were still doing minstrel shows. That was the year Martin Luther King got shot," said Wilkins, a senior majoring in social work.

Washington County's initial settlers included former slave owners and slave drivers from the South. Fifty years ago, the school enthusiastically embraced the Confederate identity, adopting the Rebel mascot and hoisting the Confederate battle standard. The college changed its team name to the Red Storm in 2009.

Lojko contends the yearbook photos are being blown out of proportion, and the college does not need to acknowledge that history.

"It isn't the same student body or the same administration as today. That hasn't gone on for years," he said. "We've worked extremely hard to have a positive environment for all students to interact on campus."

But Mikesell, a 26-year-old senior from Henefer, and many others believe the images are relevant.

The integrated studies major is deeply engaged in campus life and public service. He grows his hair long, then cuts it to donate to cancer patients, and recruits as a college ambassador. It was on recruiting trips to California that he encountered students unwilling to consider studying at a place called Dixie.

"One said, 'Your name makes me shudder,' and walked away," said Mikesell, whose heritage is Polynesian.

Pressure or advice? • Administrators say they want Mikesell to represent all students in his role as student-body president, and that means avoiding using his position to push personal views. "Several students [came] to me asking, 'Who is speaking for us?' [Mikesell] should be speaking for all students," Beatty said.

Mikesell said, "I thought I was doing that already, but I'll do a better job. I will present both sides equally."

In one of several meetings with Mikesell, the student said, Beatty asked him to explain his role in organizing an anti-racism vigil at the Confederate statue the week before it was hauled away. Mikesell said he was not involved and only came across the gathering as it was disbanding. He spoke with a police officer who apparently reported his name to administrators, and he feels it was inappropriate for them to question him.

Chief Don Reid denied his officer investigated what he called the "nonevent," and Lojko denied administrators asked Mikesell about it.

Lojko said the student services office aims to guide, not censor, students. The goal is to "serve and protect the student and help them out so they graduate and have employment." He was present at Mikesell's Dec. 4 "advisement" session and saw nothing amiss, he said.

"I think somewhere something got twisted and there is this paranoia that you can't speak out," Lojko said.

It is appropriate to ask student leaders to avoid presenting their personal positions as those of their school or its students as a whole, said Robert Shibley, a senior vice president with the free-speech watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

"But student leaders need to be free to communicate their views as well," he added. "That's the way a university and a free society are supposed to work."

Nothing in Dixie State policies dictates what student leaders can say in public, although they require the president to represent the student body on various boards, including the trustees who are to settle the name question on Jan. 18.

Campus policies ensure students' freedom of expression, and the mission statement promotes diversity of viewpoints. "He can say anything he wants," President Stephen Nadauld said recently. "We really like Brody. We love it that he's passionate. We are all about freedom of expression."

Still, Mikesell feels he is under pressure to stop emphasizing the yearbook photos and "focus on the future and positive things," while Noel fears administrators are looking for ways to retaliate against student leaders who criticize the school and its name.

"I feel it's my right to let students know what has occurred," Mikesell said. "I want to persuade as many students as possible to look at these yearbooks and consider these things in context."

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Dixie State's upcoming "rebranding" meetings

Jan. 9: Public forum, 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Gardner Student Center ballroom.

Jan. 18: Dixie board of trustees.

Jan. 25: State Board of Regents meeting on the Dixie campus. —

Correcting a description of history

A Dec. 10 story in The Salt Lake Tribune describing connections between the LDS Church's "cotton mission" in southern Utah and the Southern Confederacy misidentified a leading settler who admitted mistreating African-Americans when he supervised slaves in Mississippi.

An autobiography by George Armstrong Hicks, a pioneer near St. George during the Civil War, describes how one of his ward's ecclesiastical leaders boasted during work parties of whipping slave men and raping women. That passage references Albert Washington Collins, not Washington City bishop Robert Dockery Covington, as the Tribune reported.

The wording of Hicks' account is not clear, but the autobiography's introduction identifies the abuser as Collins. It was published last year under the title Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West, edited by Will Bagley, Polly Aird and Jeffrey Nichols.

Covington and Collins, who married into each other's families, owned plantations near Summerville, Miss., before they converted to Mormonism and migrated west. Covington descendants acknowledge Covington owned slaves, but they say their family-written histories report he treated them well and freed them before he left.

Collins, who died in 1873, served as one of Washington County's first sheriffs, serving from 1859 to 1863.