House committee advances bill that would jump-start name change for Dixie State University

Proponents are concerned about the impact to students of the name ‘Dixie,’ while opponents see it as an effort to erase the institution’s history.

"DIXIE" is painted on the Sugarloaf sandstone rock formation Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in St. George, Utah. After years of resisting calls to change its name, Dixie State University is considering dropping the term Dixie as another example of the nation’s reexamination of symbols associated with the Confederacy and the enslavement of Black people. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP)

After hearing from dozens of people on both sides of the debate during more than an hour of public comment, a Utah House committee voted 12-2 Wednesday in favor of an effort to change the name of Dixie State University.

On one side of the issue are proponents of the name change, who say they’re worried about the impacts on students of the name “Dixie,” which has connections to the Confederacy and the slave-owning American South. In southwest Utah, 19th century pioneers grew cotton, and some of the area’s early settlers were former slave owners.

“Students are experiencing pushback from the name in [job] interviews,” student body president Penny Mills told the House Education Committee on Wednesday. “Students shouldn’t have to explain the name of the university, where it is, the history of it.”

Opponents of the name change, on the other hand, see the effort as an attempt to erase the institution’s history and a misguided response to a liberal, “politically correct” culture war.

One woman said she’s been called a “racist” for supporting the name. 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.”

The name change has received support from Dixie State University’s Board of Trustees, Dixie State University’s student association executive council and the Utah Board of Higher Education.

Tim Anderson, who’s a member of a local pro-Dixie group, said the mayors of St. George and Santa Clara are opposed to the proposal.

The legislative effort to change the university’s name comes from Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, and outlines the next steps for Dixie State University’s Board of Trustees to select a new moniker. If ultimately approved, HB278 would require the board to involve the public in conversations about the change and to present a new name to the state Board of Education with an eye toward forwarding a recommendation to the Legislature no later than Nov. 1.

While the bill requires selection of a new name that does not include the term “Dixie,” lawmakers approved an amendment Wednesday that would 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.”

The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said that was an “olive branch” to people who oppose the name change while also ensuring the community can move on from the debate about “Dixie.”

“If we didn’t have that [prohibition on the term Dixie] in there, we feel like we would still be arguing about the ‘Dixie’ name and people wouldn’t be really utilizing their creativity and their effort to help come up with a name to send us into the future,” he said.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, was the only lawmaker to vote against the amendment, arguing that the name change needs to be a “clean break.”

“I don’t want to have us have one foot in, one foot out,” she said. “I think it’s time to make the change in this completely, make the break from the name.”

In this undated photo from summer 2020, shows protesters rallying in favor of keeping the nickname Dixie, in St. George, Utah. Some institutions are moving away from the Dixie because of its ties to the confederacy, but there's also pushback brewing among locals who want to appeal to lawmakers to keep it because of its local historical roots. (Lexi Peery/KUER, via AP)

A ‘bit of a distraction’

Much of the conversation on Wednesday focused on a study from last year that evaluated the potential effects of keeping or dropping ‘Dixie’ and found that 41% of recent alumni who participated in the survey and live outside Utah said they felt uncomfortable wearing their alma mater’s apparel with the word “Dixie” on it. Some 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume.

The findings also reflected the divide in the community that was on display Wednesday, as some older alumni said they would consider reducing their support to the university if the name was changed.

Last, who works for Dixie State University as vice president of university advancement, said he got a “sick feeling” in his stomach when he learned of the effort to change the name and was initially opposed, even thinking that he wouldn’t want to work for the school if the change was successful.

But he said he’s since come around to the idea and now understands how the phrase “Dixie” can negatively impact students and alumni.

“I realize many people in St. George, the term does not offend many, in fact it’s a very positive thing,” he said. “But as a university, I think we have a responsibility to do the very best we can for our students and I think the name is a bit of a distraction, a deterrent to the success of our students.”

After hearing the debate, two lawmakers ultimately voted against the bill: Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, and Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George.

Robertson said ahead of his vote that he was concerned about “cancel culture” and that some people didn’t feel their voices were being represented.

“I’m concerned that if there’s a unanimous vote in the positive out of this body that their voices, they would feel even less heard,” he said before voting against the bill.

HB278 now moves to the full House for further consideration.

A sign stands at Dixie State University on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in St. George, Utah. After years of resisting calls to change its name, the university is considering dropping the term Dixie as another example of the nation’s reexamination of symbols associated with the Confederacy and the enslavement of Black people. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP)

From ‘Dixie’ to ‘Squaw’

Also Wednesday evening, a legislative committee passed out legislation that would smooth the process for changing a location name that contains language derogatory to American Indians.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, comes as Utahns work to change the name of Squaw Peak in Provo and other sites that contain the word “squaw.” That word, witnesses testified Wednesday, is not derived from the languages of Utah’s indigenous tribes and was introduced by pioneers who used it to describe prostitutes.

Ed Naranjo, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, said it’s pained him when people refer to native women as “squaws.”

“It’s often used in a way of belittling our girls and women,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking, when my daughter asked me one time when she was growing up, ‘Why do people call me squaw?’ It was very difficult to answer her. And then now, I’m also hearing it from my granddaughter. That shouldn’t be happening.”

Iwamoto’s bill, SB10, would create a template that would streamline the process for indigenous tribes or other community members to petition the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change place names.

Former U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop supported the proposal because of its commonsense approach to revisiting names that are causing offense.

“We definitely have a cancel culture. Some of those things that are talked about canceling are legitimate and some of them are just mysterious as to why anyone would want to do it,” the former Republican congressman said. “But what the good senator is doing with her legislation is trying to say, ‘OK let’s come up with a process of who should be involved in giving input into the final decision.’”

Iwamoto’s legislation will now move to the full Senate for consideration.