After refusing to hold a hearing on the bill for weeks, Utah senators finally let up Monday and advanced a measure that would allow Dixie State University to potentially change its controversial name.
Their vote, though, only came after significant concessions and revisions to the legislation. The updated version of HB278 would essentially require the university to start the process for renaming over again — going back to square one to form a committee to study the issue and collect more community input. And it no longer stops the final name from still including “Dixie.”
That amendment was pushed by Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who represents the area where the university is located. He has been opposed to the name change and was a major force behind the efforts to block the bill.
Ipson insisted that for HB278 to move forward this session, the word “Dixie” must remain among the possibilities for a new name because of the vocal support for the term among the residents of southern Utah, who want more of a say in the name they claim as part of their regional identity. The first version of the bill wouldn’t have allowed that.
And if the university still decides it wants to drop “Dixie” after undergoing the new process and hearing from those individuals, the new language in the bill stipulates that the school will be required to create a “Heritage Committee” focused on ways it can continue to “preserve the heritage, culture, and history of the region on the campus of the institution, including the regional significance of the term.” That effort would be allocated $500,000 from the state.
Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, the sponsor of HB278, told members of the Senate Education Committee on Monday that he felt those changes and requirements “strike a really nice balance.” And Ipson said in a statement, too, that he now supports it.
“It allows for additional public input and conversation,” Miles added. “We recognize the great heritage of southern Utah and the Dixie community. … But we recognize that times change. And that’s where we find ourselves.”
With a 6-1 vote there, the bill now moves forward to the full Senate for a vote. That will have to come quick as the session wraps up Friday. The measure previously passed the House early last month by 51-20.
A president’s push
Dixie State’s administration has formally stated it wants to change the school name due to its associations with the Confederacy and the slave-owning American South. But the publicly funded university in St. George does not have the authority to do so without the signoff from the Legislature.
The university notes 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 conducted a study last year that found 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.
That came even after the school dropped its use of the Confederate flag in 1993 and its Rodney the Rebel mascot in 2007, Dixie State President Richard Williams told the committee Monday. The racist imagery it once adopted is gone, he said, but the name continues to maintain the ties and raise questions. And he believes it’s time to distance the school from that.
“I have not sought or wanted to change the name, but after much thought and study and talking to a lot of people I think we have to change the name of our institution,” Williams added, noting he knew he’d face strong pushback for starting the process.
The president noted that many area residents feel the term “Dixie” means something different in Utah than in the South. But even 19th century pioneers in southwest part of Utah were growing cotton, and some of the area’s early settlers were slave owners.
Williams feels that celebrating all of that past hurts current students. He wants the school to continue to grow — its student body has expanded by 40% in the last five years — and become competitive in the region. It’s got the lowest tuition in the state, making it a huge draw for affordability. He believes holding onto “Dixie” is holding that progress back.
“We need a name that reflects the future of our university,” he said. “This is not canceling our heritage.”
For a change
More than 40 people joined the committee meeting Monday to speak during the public comment period, with those on both sides of the debate saying their heritage tied them to the issue.
Grant Bess noted that his ancestor was one of the first white settlers in the region. And, he said, that same ancestor also was involved in perpetrating the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where a militia from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints killed some 120 California-bound immigrants in 1857 in what is now Cedar City.
“I know when it’s best to acknowledge our ancestor’s faults,” Bess said.
Bess also noted that he took a few classes and got credits at Dixie State, but he chose to finish his undergraduate degree elsewhere because of the name.
Elizabeth Dahlberg, an alumnus and former recruiter for Dixie State, said she also doesn’t include the school’s name on her resume. And she fears it’s stopping students of color from going there, which she saw firsthand when she tried to get some to apply in the past.She said she enjoyed her time at the university, but “removing a name does not delete these memories from my life.”
Athletes, the student body president, the current Miss Dixie State and the director of tourism for Washington County also spoke in favor of changing the name, as did the president of the NAACP branch of Salt Lake City. Many rallied last week, too, in front of the Capitol in favor of dropping “Dixie.”
Sione Siaki, a Utah student who identified as Tongan American, said, “Students should be able to go anywhere and be proud of their name and their institution.”
And against a change
Opponents, though, countered that 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 this year. (A representative from the hospital spoke Monday to the committee in support of also dropping “Dixie” from the university.)
Greg Brooks noted that he is a fifth generation resident of St. George and his ancestor, Samuel Brooks, was one of the first students of Dixie State in 1911 when it was originally St. George Stake Academy.(Samuel Brooks was also the inspiration behind the new trailblazer mascot, after it was changed from the Confederate soldier.)
Brooks said he opposes the change and wants the state to stand by its legacy — with the name changed to “Dixie” in 1913 — which he does not see as racist. He also believes the process has been rushed and the local community has not “been given fair time to state how we feel.”
Part of that has to do with how the school decided on the renaming. After conducting the study, Dixie State’s board of trustees voted unanimously to move forward with the change. That was then approved by the Utah System of Higher Education. The measure had to come to the Legislature next.
Members of the public have been able to weigh in on Capitol Hill, but residents say they should have had a say at the Dixie State level before it moved ahead.They also say they haven’t been given enough time to make their case to lawmakers.
In Monday’s committee meeting, for instance, all speakers during the public comment period were limited to 60 seconds because of the number who wanted to talk. The discussion lasted nearly two hours and the chair of the committee switched off to give both sides the same time, but some said it “was not how democracy is supposed to work.”
Tim Anderson, a lawyer in St. George who drove four hours from southern Utah to attend the meeting, questioned both the time limits and the process for changing the name of Dixie State.
“The heritage, the tradition, the culture of southern Utah is quickly being eroded by this,” he said. “It’s a name that shouldn’t just be let go of” because of some current fad of “cancel culture.”
Others said the university would lose money from donors and would have to spend millions to rebrand. A few pointed to the same study that Dixie State based its decision on, which also noted that 62% of the general population in the area preferred keeping the name. Many said the university has continued to grow and the name isn’t stopping that.
Bailee Basile, a current student, said she’s been called a racist for supporting the name. But she continues to stand by it and wants the university to know there are others like her attending now.
Miles, the bill sponsor, told the committee Monday that he doesn’t think the process should be based on popularity but impact. If one student is hurt, he said — and he believes many have been by the name — then the state should step in and act. “We will wholeheartedly acknowledge this is not a popularity contest,” he added, noting most students and alumni would vote against it.
But the name change, he added, “has been on the horizon for years.”
Sens. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, both spoke in favor of the bill. McKell said the new changes will allow for more community input by starting the process again and debating all options, including “Dixie,” before a name is chosen. He wants those opposed to the change to know they’re being heard and their heritage matters.
Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the community’s voice should be the most important, and he’s not sure residents will be fairly listened to by the university. He was the one “no” vote.
If the measure next passes the full Senate and moves forward to the governor for a signature, Dixie State would need to form a committee to study the name further and seek more input. A new name recommendation should come to the Legislature no later than Nov. 1 for another vote.