Dixie State University may not be able to change its name as Republicans in the Utah Senate delay hearings

HB278 appears to be stalled and could be pushed off until next year.

(The Associate Press) In this June 30, 2020, file photo, a sign stands at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

A bill to allow Dixie State University to change its controversial name appears to have stalled after Senate Republicans opposed to the effort effectively blocked any more hearings from taking place.

“We don’t know what happens next,” said Jyl Hall, the spokesperson for the university. “But it’s our understanding at this point that they’re not going to vote on the measure.”

Legislative sources confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that members of the GOP caucus for the Utah Senate — which holds the majority and conducts only closed meetings — voted this week not to assign the bill to a committee, the next step for the measure to move forward. Those sources, who are not authorized to talk about the confidential meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent is to kill the bill and wait until next year to bring it up again.

That effort will likely succeed, too, with only two weeks left in the current session.

The bill, HB278, proposes to drop “Dixie” from the school’s name due to its associations with the Confederacy and the slave-owning American South. It passed through the House on a 51-20 vote. But it has gone untouched by the Senate for more than a week since that. Without passage by the body, it would not go to the governor’s desk to be signed.

And Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that if it did come before him, he had planned on approving it.

“I guess if people just want it to be a parochial, community college-type place, then that’s certainly a direction,” Cox told reporters. “But if you want it to be a world-class university — which it has the potential to do, to really bless the lives of students there — then getting a name that is more reflective of what the school does and what it represents is going to be important.”

Senate leaders largely deferred questions on their intentions with the bill Friday.

Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he was “not going to comment” on what happened in the closed caucus meeting about HB278. Senate President Stuart Adams added that he saw “some challenges” with the bill and the effort to change the name of the university.

He pointed to a survey conducted by the consulting firm Cicero on behalf of the university that found 62% of the general population in the area around Dixie State in southwestern Utah preferred keeping the name. Adams said that was a “neon light” telling him to stop and that there needs to be more education about the change and more support before moving forward. He believes there should be work done to “refine” the measure —though he suggested anything could still happen this session.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, meanwhile, said he was shocked by the decision to sit on the bill.

“I’m disappointed because this is the first I’m hearing about it,” he said Friday. “I’m also disappointed because this is an issue that has broad consensus. These kids graduating from this institution are having problems because of the stigma attached to that name.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, also urged the Senate to let it go to a vote.

Without the signoff from the Legislature, the publicly funded university in St. George does not have the authority to change its name and would be left in limbo, continuing under a name it has said it doesn’t want. Hall, Dixie State’s spokesperson, said the administration at the school is trying to be optimistic, though.

In a formal statement, the university added that the name change was “never intended to erase our great history but to create a brighter future for our students” on the campus of 12,000.

It continued: “In that spirit, university administration strongly feels this bill deserves to be discussed publicly on the Senate floor, where we are confident the bill has strong support. We believe that the Senate should fully hear and understand the intent, purpose, and impacts of this recommendation on our students, school and state.”

The discussion around dropping “Dixie” has come up several times in the past. But the most recent effort is the closest it has ever come to happening.

The university’s board of trustees voted unanimously in December to rename the school. That was then approved by the Utah System of Higher Education. The Legislature was supposed to be the next step.

HB278 would grant permission to the school’s board of trustees to involve the public in conversations about the change and for members to come up with a new name together. That would have come before lawmakers again — no later than Nov. 1 — for the final approval.

The bill instructed that the name would “not include the term ‘Dixie.’”

The school has said it needs to distance itself from that word due to the associations with slavery. That includes 19th century pioneers in southwest Utah growing cotton and some of the area’s early settlers being slave owners.

The school commissioned the study with Cicero, and it found that 64% of respondents outside of Utah related the term to racism. It also concluded the name was causing problems for students with recruitment for jobs and graduate schools in other states. Roughly 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume.

“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,” said trustee Tiffany Wilson in December.

The college was originally founded as the St. George Stake Academy and didn’t start using “Dixie” until 25 years later in 1913.

Additionally, more than a third of current students, including the student body president, and 54% of faculty and staff said keeping the name now would negatively affect the school’s brand and stop it from improving and growing as an institution.

The school’s president, Richard Williams, said those results swayed the administration to support changing the name. He acknowledged, though, it would be “difficult for many, since the name has been cherished in our region since 1857.”

And that has proven to be the case — both with residents and lawmakers.

When the bill was heard in a House committee earlier this month, there was strong public outcry that showed the deep division over the change.

Opponents said dropping “Dixie” is an attempt to erase the institution’s history and a misguided response to a “politically correct” culture war that already resulted in Utah’s Dixie Regional Medical Center changing its name to Intermountain St. George Hospital.

One woman told lawmakers that she’s been called a “racist” for supporting the name “Dixie,” which she believes has a different meaning locally. And Dixie State University student Kanton Vause told lawmakers that he’s felt “bullied and ostracized” for expressing his pro-Dixie stances.

“There is a great name for the university: It is Dixie State University,” he said. “It is a name that we love. It is a name that we wish to keep.”

There have been several protests in the area and a local pro-Dixie group has formed to defend the name.

At that point, the bill was amended as an olive branch to move the name change forward but allow the campus to still be referred to as “the Dixie campus” in an effort “to honor the local traditional significance of the name of the institution.”

Despite some opposition and similar arguments of bending to “cancel culture,” HB278 made it through the House with most representatives agreeing that the change is what the university wants and has asked for.

But it has continued to eat at some senators – with rumors circulating for much of the session that the effort would stall there.Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who represents the area, said Friday that “it’s evident that the community is not ready to give up the name.” And he opposes any effort to force it.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “The people of the community and the university are a little bit different, so we’re going to work that out.”

A study commissioned in 2013 by the university found that 83% of people in the region wanted to keep the “Dixie” name, so that percentage has dropped in the most recent study pointed to by both Adams and Ipson, with 62%. But it’s still a majority.

— Tribune reporters Bryan Schott and Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story.