St. George • A name change last summer may have relegated Dixie State University to the history books, but “Dixie” and higher education still endure in southern Utah’s largest city.
Nearly seven months ago, on July 1, Dixie State was renamed to Utah Tech University, a move that roiled some longtime Washington County residents who accused state legislators who ordered the name change and university officials of going “woke.”
But 2 ½ miles to the west of Utah Tech, atop Tech Ridge on the site of St. George’s old airport, Dixie lives on — not only in the large block letter D that adorns the side of the ridge but also atop the mesa where Dixie Technical College is situated.
Apparently, that is fine with most school administrators, students and St. George-area residents, who told The Tribune this week they don’t give the matter much thought. Unlike the situation at Utah Tech, Dixie Technical College’s name is certainly not a bone of contention in the community between differing camps that would wish to retain or change it.
“I don’t think about it,” admitted Collin McCoy, a student from nearby Santa Clara studying information technology. “Maybe that’s because I just grew up with the name.”
Added Kaden Mertz, a Crimson Cliff High School senior studying app development at the college:
“I don’t believe the school is large enough to be controversial,” the St. George teen said. “It isn’t big enough yet for people to care about its name.”
Established by the Legislature in September 2001, then-Dixie Applied Technology College started with a measly 26 students enrolled in three programs — office management, diesel technology and construction technology. But it has since blossomed into nearly 1,500 students who now have a menu of 25 accredited programs from which to choose.
Moreover, its name change in 2017 to Dixie Technical College was accompanied by a move that year to its present location on a 30-acre campus on the site of the former airport. The campus included two new buildings that were built at a combined cost of $32 million and consisted of a combined 162,000 square feet. A third building totaling 11,580 square feet was renovated for use by the college.
That growth and the increasing selection and caliber of the programs are what’s important to school President Jordan Rushton.
“I’m not nearly as concerned with the name as I am with making sure the students have a quality experience here,” said Rushton, who was named the college’s third president in September, succeeding Kelle Stephens, who served as president from 2012 to 2022.
“I don’t see [the name] changing,” Rushton added. " I don’t think there’s been any real push to change it. I don’t even know if there has been much conversation around it.”
If college administrators and students haven’t given the matter much thought, some state legislators and education officials have, at least a little bit.
Miles Kelly, the former Republican state legislator who sponsored the bill to rename Dixie State University to Utah Tech, said leaving Dixie Technical College’s name intact was a reflection of the fact that it was more of a local college.
“Dixie State had become a regional university and was drawing students from out of state and placing students in graduate and professional programs in other universities. It had more of a national reach than Dixie Technical College,” said Kelly, who lost his reelection bid for House District 11 to Katy Hall in the GOP primary in June.
Dixie State University’s name became a hot-button issue in 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Proponents of the name change argued the word “Dixie” evoked images of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Opponents contended leaving “Dixie” in the title honored the area’s heritage.
In 1861, the 309 families that early Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young sent south to settle what would become St. George and establish a cotton mission called the area “Utah’s Dixie” due to its warm climate that reminded them of the American South.
Utah Higher Education Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme said the name of Dixie State University became an issue for graduates as they went and interviewed for jobs out of state. While Utahns understand the origination of the name, he added, potential employers out of state didn’t appreciate the name.
“Students had to spend a lot of time trying to explain the name Dixie,” the commissioner said. “The reason the name of Dixie Technical College was not an issue for [state education officials] is that those students usually stay within the region. So ‘Dixie’ doesn’t become a complication for them because people in Utah know the history and what that name means. They don’t have to defend the name when they are interviewing for jobs.”
Nursing student Alyssa Humpherys doesn’t worry too much about the name of the college but says the “tech” in the names of both of St. George’s higher education institutions leads some people to confuse the two or think they are one and the same.
For her part, Mikayla Sondrup believes a new name for the college is in order.
“They should change it because the term ‘Dixie’ can be offensive,” said Sondrup, who hails from Richfield and is studying app development.
Count Santa Clara resident Carol Jean Nobis in the opposite camp. She said renaming the college to something sans “Dixie” would anger a lot of old-timers in the community.
“It wouldn’t fly,” she said. “I’ve lived here so long that Dixie is in my veins. The people who have lived here a long time don’t want anything to do with any other name but Dixie.”