Utah Senate close to breaking impasse over stalled Dixie State name change bill

Senators may strike language blocking the term ‘Dixie.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students from Dixie State University rally at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, calling on lawmakers to change the name of their school. Discussions are underway that might break a political logjam in the Senate that has been blocking the bill allowing a name change.

The bill allowing Dixie State University to change its name — which has been blocked by Republicans in the Utah Senate — appeared close to breaking loose on Wednesday, at the same time students gathered on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to bring the bill forward for a vote.

Senate Republican leaders Wednesday afternoon reversed their previous stance and said the bill would now be heard before the end of the 2021 session, which is next week, but offered few details.

Senate Republicans are considering a change to HB278 that would ease some of their objections to the bill, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly. The change would likely involve removing language from the bill prohibiting the new name from including the term “Dixie.”

“There is a legislative process. The bill will be heard. That’s the good news. We’re still working on it,” said Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork and the Senate sponsor of the legislation.

“Is there a way to improve the process with students and the community in a respectful way?” asked McKell. “That’s something we’re working on right now.”

“I think everyone is anticipating that the community needs to have input,” added Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “There is some concern about delaying the process. We need to make sure that whatever public effort is made so that it stays on track with that process.”

Senate Republicans have been under increasing pressure to consider the name change from their counterparts in the House, who passed the bill last week, as well as from businesses and Dixie State students. Critics of the name say it conjures images of the deep South and slavery during the Confederacy.

Proponents of the name, on the other hand, see the effort to change the name as an attempt to erase the institution’s history and a misguided response to calls for a politically correct culture.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, has pointed to recent polling showing a majority of Utahns oppose the name change as a reason to slow the process down.

“I think they acted too soon and didn’t give the community a chance to come along with them,” he said Tuesday.

A survey from the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah found that 61% of Utahns say the school should not change its name, while 20% would support it.

As the debate rages on, about 50 Dixie State students bused up from St. George on Wednesday to gather on the steps of the state Capitol, where they chanted and held signs that urged lawmakers to “put the bill on the floor” and think “for the love of our future.”

Student Body President Penny Mills, a senior, said it was important for those that attend the school to show their support for the bill because she thinks students at Dixie State are the “most important constituents as far as this bill goes because it directly impacts our future.”

A study from last year that evaluated the potential effects of keeping or dropping ‘Dixie’ 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. And 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume.

Mills said she’s personally been on all spectrums of opinion about the name change over the years. But once that study showed ‘Dixie’ was impacting students, “that’s when I was like, OK, it’s offensive. It’s impacting students. Let’s get with the times and progress.”

Deven Osborne, now a senior on the football team at Dixie State, said he wasn’t aware of the connotations behind “Dixie” when he began applying for schools — but his dad was wary.

“He didn’t like it at first,” Osborne, who’s Black, said in an interview. “But now he would tell you it was the greatest decision of my life to come here because I definitely became a way better man.”

Osborne said he knows of students who have declined athletic scholarships because of concerns about the name. But he wants “people who look like me and don’t look like me to have that same experience” that he’s had at the school “and not write us off just because of our name.”

While the showing at the Capitol was primarily in support of the bill on Wednesday, the crowd was joined by two counterprotesters who said they had attended but did not graduate from Dixie State University and now live in the Salt Lake City area.

“I love the name Dixie. To me, that’s my heritage,” said Bonnie Graf Peterson, who came with a sign urging lawmakers to honor the name and not change it. “I grew up there. I went to Dixie Junior High, I went to Dixie High School, I went to Dixie College and [if they change the name] they’re taking away part of my life. Part of my heritage.”

She said there are alumni all over the world who are working and haven’t seen the name change as a detriment to their success. If students work hard and get good grades, no one will raise a fuss over the name of the school, she said.

Though some alumni and community members aren’t sold, the name change has received strong support from Dixie State University’s Board of Trustees, Dixie State University’s student association executive council and the Utah Board of Higher Education.

The school issued a statement of support for the students protesting earlier this week, noting that the university was “prepared to work with senators” on the bill but was concerned “that we have not heard specific proposals to strengthen the bill” as the end of the session nears.

“Discussions regarding the Dixie State name have been ongoing for decades, and it is now clear that the name is creating measurable and widespread negative impacts on our students, alumni, and institution,” Jyl Hall, a spokeswoman with Dixie State University, said in the written statement. “Out of respect for our students and the hard work they put into earning their degrees, the University feels it is paramount that the bill is heard on the senate floor this year.”

Mills said she hopes the student showing on Wednesday will make a difference in the consideration of the bill. If it’s ultimately heard on the Senate floor and voted down, she said she’ll feel “discouraged.”

“But I honestly don’t think it’s the last time legislators will hear about this,” she said. “Because [this conversation] has been happening for the last 20 years. People don’t understand this is not a new issue. It’s not because of cancel culture or whatever other people think. It’s impacted students. It’s been an issue for years. It’s just now students are becoming vocal about it.”