Bill on changing Dixie State University’s name gets final approval from Utah lawmakers

HB278 now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox to sign.

(Chris Caldwell | AP)"DIXIE" is painted on a sandstone rock formation in St. George, Utah, near Dixie State University. The school can now move forward with possibly changing its name after a final vote from the Legislature on March 3, 2021.

A bill that will allow Dixie State University to move forward with plans to possibly change its controversial name has gained final passage in the Utah Legislature — wrapping up a wild path for the measure that saw weekslong delays, major revisions and several protests this session.

That chaos continued up until the last votes on it Wednesday.

The measure, HB278, passed the Senate 26-3, but only after some lawmakers criticized the effort overall and said it was giving into “cancel culture.” One questioned why Yale University, a private school in Connecticut, should “get a pass” when it’s named after a slave trader but Utah is the one having to make changes.

“I would really like someone to explain that to me,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who noted his wife graduated from Dixie State in southern Utah.

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, joined in, saying he’s frustrated, too, by what he sees as an effort to be politically correct that he feels is infecting the nation. His was one of the three votes against the measure.

“Mr. Potato Head is now Potato Head,” Johnson said, referring to the recent drop of “mister” from the toy’s name to be more inclusive.Dr. Seuss is on his deathbed. Where does this stop?”

He also pointed around the state, accusing the University of Utah of only getting to keep the Runnin’ Utes mascot for its sports teams because “they paid off some group.” That’s a reference to the longstanding agreement that the U. has with the Ute Indian Tribe where, in exchange for using the name, the school must educate all students about Native Americans and support scholarships for tribal members, among other obligations. The tribe’s leadership has said it appreciates those conditions.

But Johnson continued: “The people of Washington County don’t have some group to pay off” to keep the Dixie name, which is associated with the Confederacy and the slave-owning American South.

“Does it stop when we change the name of the state?” he continued. “Does it stop when we tear down Brigham Young’s statue?” Young, an early founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed interracial marriage and started the faith’s ban on Black members holding the priesthood and entering temples, which was later lifted in 1978.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who represents the area where Dixie State is located and was originally opposed to the name change, voted in favor. That came after the senator had earlier blocked the bill from getting a hearing in the Senate. But he signed on as a sponsor after helping make several changes to the measure earlier this week.

Those included requiring the university to restart the renaming process — going back to square one to form a committee to study the issue and collect more community input before making a final call. And it no longer stops the new name from still including “Dixie,” as the first version of the bill did.

But if the university decides it wants to drop “Dixie” after undergoing the new process and hearing from the vocal majority of residents opposed to the change, 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.”

Ipson said Wednesday that he has strong family ties to the area in southern Utah, including ancestors who helped keep the institution running twice when members of the community mortgaged their homes so it would have enough funds to remain open. The changes, he reiterated Wednesday, make sure that everyone gets a chance to have a say before a final decision is made. “There’s just more room for input,” he said, urging support.

Dixie State’s administration formally stated in December that it wanted to change the school name. But the publicly funded university does not have the authority to do so without the signoff from the Legislature.

The university has said that the effort 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 “Dixie” 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 representing a Confederate soldier in 2007, Dixie State President Richard Williams told a Senate committee earlier this week. The racist imagery it once adopted is gone, he said, but the name continues to maintain the ties and raise questions.

The president noted that many area residents feel the term “Dixie” means something different in Utah than in the South. But 19th century pioneers in the 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 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. He believes holding onto “Dixie” is holding back that progress.

The bill has seen hours of back and forth during public comment periods and sparked protests both on Capitol Hill and at Dixie State. Those in support of the name change say putting “Dixie” on their resume is embarrassing. Others said it stops more students of color from attending the university.

But those opposed have countered that dropping “Dixie” is an attempt to erase the institution’s history and their regional identity.

After the Senate passed the bill Wednesday, it had to go back to the House to approve the changes made. Those same arguments played out among members there before a 48-22 vote for final passage.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, the original sponsor and drafter of the bill, said the new language dictates that if the university chooses to move forward with a new name that it should “reflect the institution’s mission,” as well as still honor the “significance to the surrounding region and state.” He believes it’s “unlikely” that “Dixie” will remain in the name, though not prohibiting that outright was a compromise. The university’s board of trustees and the Utah System of Higher Education have both supported removing the term.

Several lawmakers spoke out against the changes, though, preferring the original bill they passed last month. Reps. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, and Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, both said they’re concerned that the compromise will now cost $500,000 — the allocation that will be given to the Heritage Committee to create some kind of monument or museum around the term “Dixie.”

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who’s an administrator at Dixie State, said he doesn’t like the changes either, but sees them as a way for the school to move forward. The money, he added, was just a “gesture of goodwill.”

“Vote this down and we go back and go through hell for another year and who knows what we end up with,” he noted. Others joined in support. One called it “better than no bill at all.”

The measure goes next to the governor. If he signs it — and Gov. Spencer Cox has said he plans to — Dixie State would study the issue and recommend a new name to the Legislature no later than Nov. 1.