The Dixie State University board of trustees voted unanimously Monday to recommend removing “Dixie” from the college’s name.
The board made its recommendation to the Utah Board of Higher Education after going over findings from a study by the consulting firm Cicero, which evaluated the potential effects of keeping or changing the name.
This is the latest discussion of several over the years about whether to remove “Dixie” from the university’s name, due to controversy over its connections to the Confederacy and the slave-owning American South. In southwest Utah, 19th century pioneers grew cotton, and some of the area’s early settlers were former slave owners and slave drivers.
The recommendation now moves on to the Utah Board of Higher Education and the state Legislature for approval. Dixie State University President Richard Williams said he did not have a timeline for when that may happen, but he hopes “they will act on this sooner than later,” since the study showed there are potentially negative effects for future recruitment and graduates’ job prospects with the name in place.
Williams also did not have an estimate Monday of how much the university’s rebranding will cost.
The university’s other governing bodies, including the president’s cabinet, university council, staff association board, faculty senate and student executive council, also supported the trustees’ decision Monday.
“Although we deeply believe moving toward an institutional name change is in the best interest of our campus community,” Williams said, “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.”
Williams said he was surprised by a finding in the study that 41% of recent alumni who live outside Utah said they felt uncomfortable wearing their alma mater’s apparel with the word “Dixie” on it. Trustee Tiffany Wilson said she was struck that 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume.
As someone who grew up in St. George and “went to all the Dixie schools,” Wilson said, she has a “strong affinity” to the name Dixie and “what it means for me and for my community.”
“It’s very clear that there’s no question that, locally, we understand what the name means, and it’s easy to say, ‘If we could just explain it to everyone, that’d be great,’” Wilson said. But, she added, “we don’t have that opportunity.”
Wilson said she’s cried “tears and tears and tears over this issue,” but for her, the decision came down to what is best for current and future students, so they can learn in an open and inclusive environment that welcomes everyone.
“This is not about me. This not about us. It’s about them,” she told the board before its vote.
St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who’s also a trustee, said his focus was also on the students, as he voted in favor of the recommendation. “We can’t assume that the pipeline of students will just to continue to flow as it has,” Pike said.
According to the study, 64% of respondents outside Utah, 41% of people in greater Utah and 33% of those in southwestern Utah said they associate the word “Dixie” with the South and the Confederacy.
“Even though we tried to cut off our connection to anything Confederate back when we eliminated our Rodney the Rebel mascot, when we eliminated the Confederate flag as the official flag of Dixie State, those things haven’t left us,” Wilson said. “... Being tied to that in any way ... that’s a concern for us.”
Some respondents were confused about where the university was located due to “Dixie’ being in the name, according to the Cicero study, which was conducted from September to November. It included eight focus groups, 102 in-depth interviews and a survey of 3,225 people.
Older alumni were more likely to say they would consider reducing their support to the university if the name was changed, according to the study, and 62% of the general population in southwestern Utah said keeping the name would help the university’s brand.
Meanwhile, more than a third of current students and 54% of faculty and staff said keeping the name would negatively affect the school’s brand. And 48% of African Americans believe keeping “Dixie” would hurt the university’s reputation.
“I think that it’s definitely been a very hard decision and very hard discussion,” said Penny Mills, the student body president. “But, in my opinion, I think that if there are any barriers between students and their futures and their careers, we need to be able to overcome those barriers.”
Mills added that this name change is not meant to “erase history,” but is a step to “learn from history.”
“We still love the name Dixie,” Mills said. It’s why many students came to the school, she said, because “we felt the impact of the Dixie spirit that people often talk about,” including herself.
President Williams said they have received calls from graduates who want to change the name on their diplomas, and the university will work on figuring out how to handle those requests.
The process for picking a new name will be similar to the one used when the school rebranded to the Trailblazers in 2016, from its previous mascot of Red Storm and Big “D” the Bull, said Jordon Sharp, vice president of marketing and communication.
Sharp said he sees a few options for names. The school could choose a geographical connection, like Southern Utah University does. It could use a brand name that describes the university’s course offerings. Or, it could pay homage to its founders, like Duke University’s name, he said.
“Dixie State University came by its name through many changes” as the institution transitioned from a high school to a college over the decades, after being established in 1911, according to the college’s website. “...The name ‘Dixie’ was already used to identify the area,” the website states, and it remained in the institution’s name over generations.
In 2013, the university commissioned a study that found that 83% of people in and around the college supported retaining its name.
In July, Utah’s Dixie Regional Medical Center announced it was changing its name to Intermountain St. George Hospital, effective Jan. 1, 2021.
“The word ‘Dixie’ still has a beautiful meaning for many who live here. … For others who are not from this area, it has offensive connotations. Our hospitals’ names should be strong, clear, and help everyone we serve feel safe and welcome,” Mitch Cloward, Dixie Regional Medical Center’s administrator, said at the time.