A bill allowing Dixie State University to move past its controversial name and forge ahead with a new tech-savvy mission has gained final passage in the Utah Legislature.
The votes Wednesday wrap up a wild path for the monumental measure that over the past year has seen fierce protests, cries of “cancel culture,” continued revisions and uncertainty over whether it had enough support even into the last moments.
The bill passed the Senate with a 17-12 vote. It goes next to Gov. Spencer Cox, who is expected to sign his approval.
With that, the school in southern Utah will soon be called Utah Tech University.
“This gives them the power to be something much, much greater moving forward,” said Republican Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, the bill’s floor sponsor. “We are empowering the institution.”
The Utah House had first passed the bill, HB2001, on a 56-15 vote earlier in the day during this week’s special session. But there were doubts about if the measure would make it through the tougher, more conservative Utah Senate.
Senate President Stuart Adams had told members of the media that he wasn’t sure if the name change could succeed. And joining him, Sens. Don Ipson and Evan Vickers, both staunch Republicans who represent southern Utah, said they would not vote in favor.
Ipson made a last push against it on the floor, calling himself “the last man standing” and pointing to a relative of his, who in the past stood against renaming the University of Deseret to the University of Utah in 1892. He said he would continue that tradition and fight against dropping “Dixie” to appease a few people worried about political correctness. He defended the name’s heritage in St. George and the surrounding area, disavowing any ties to racism.
“We fought a good fight,” he said. “And people and alumni around the world will be disappointed by this.”
The official change and rebranding will start in July of next year.
The university was quick to celebrate Wednesday with the news that came as a relief. The school’s administrators released a statement, saying they were grateful to be getting “a reputable name.”
“We look forward to building a Utah Tech University brand that will strongly represent what it means to be a Trailblazer while continuing to preserve the pioneering heritage of our institution and region,” the statement read.
The school began looking into changing its name this summer in the hopes of severing the last tie on the campus to the Confederacy of the Civil War South.
Its board voted to do so in December after conducting a study that found 64% of respondents outside of Utah related the term “Dixie” to racism. And Dixie President Richard Williams said several students told him that was hurting their chances in job interviews and graduate school applications.
That came even after the school dropped the Confederate flag in 1993 and Rodney the Rebel mascot in 2007. It removed a statue of a Confederate soldier in 2012. And the slave auctions and minstrel shows and blackface that students did up until the 1990s — which fill the pages of the yearbooks there — ended, too.
But even with that imagery gone, Williams has said the name continued to raise questions.
“We have been having this debate for 30 years,” he said during the final public hearing on the issue Tuesday. “But we haven’t changed the right thing, which is the name of the university.”
The school wants to expand beyond a regional college, become centered around technology, and attract students from across the country — and not be alarming to students of color who might want to attend. Many of those students at the university have spoken out against the “Dixie” name as an antiquated and loaded term that can be hurtful.
They say they don’t want to erase history, but instead hope to address persisting racism and move forward.
The debate has created a deep rift in the community. That erupted during the public comments Tuesday and with dueling rallies at the Utah Capitol ahead of that.
On Wednesday, the senators and representatives who spoke against changing the name were all white men.
Rep. Walt Brooks, a Republican representing St. George, described himself as “as Dixie as they come.” He questioned why his alma mater needed a change when it is already experiencing expansive growth, with 12,000 students and 23% students of color. He blamed the push on “a trend in the nation of being oversensitive.”
Republican Rep. Rex Shipp, whose district includes Cedar City in southern Utah, said he talked to some students, and they told him they wanted to keep the Dixie name. He added that it doesn’t make sense for those studying English or the arts to have a degree from a tech school.
In the Senate down the hall, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said his constituents are deeply pained by the change, feeling like they don’t matter and haven’t been listened to. “And their feelings are real,” he said.
A compromise was reached to name the main St. George campus of the university “the Dixie campus,” which some said would be a bridge for the community to state healing. The school will also be charged with creating a heritage committee to preserve the legacy of the name. Ipson said he would be the first to donate to that and hopes they make a museum “as a place of refuge.”
Those who spoke in favor of the name change insisted it was not about “cancel culture” but rather an opportunity for the school to align with a new technology-driven focus — to become like Texas Tech or Virginia Tech.
Several also noted that even if most students haven’t been harmed, it was worth a switch to protect those that are being held back. One legislator mentioned that his son was asked about the school’s name that morning in an interview for a medical residency.
“How many students are you willing to sacrifice on the altar of Dixie?” asked Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, “How many students are you willing to put in a compromising position because of that name we love so much? I say one is too many.”
One mentioned SkyWest Airlines changing from Dixie Airlines when it expanded service beyond Utah. Another senator commented on how Washington County’s tourism team stopped using the term “Dixie” to draw in visitors from out of state, too, because it didn’t make sense.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, talked about the Dixie Chicks becoming the Chicks last year and Dolly Parton changing her music show from the Dixie Stampede to the Stampede. With Dixie State being a state institution funded by taxpayers from across the state, he said everyone should have a say in it. “And we ought to follow Dolly Parton’s advice,” he said with a smile.
Weiler also said he didn’t feel like the issue would go away. He appealed to lawmakers to take action now to address it.
Rep. Jordan Teuscher noted that all of the major universities in the state have changed their names, including the U.; Utah State, which used to have “agricultural” in its title; Utah Valley, which was the Central Utah Vocational School; and Dixie State, which started as St. George Academy and has changed eight times since then.
On Wednesday, lawmakers gave final approval for the ninth name there.