Richard B. Williams: Dixie State University’s name must change for students’ benefit

Greater Zion Stadium at Dixie State University is shown Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in St. George, Utah. Dixie State University is considering dropping Dixie from its name as another example of the nation’s reexamination of symbols associated with the Confederacy. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP)

Hearing students and alumni’s personal stories of how Dixie State University has impacted their lives is among the most rewarding experiences I have had while serving as the institution’s president for the past six years. However, in addition to learning how our unique “active learning. active life” approach to education is preparing Trailblazers for their careers, I started to hear other, more concerning stories.

For example, alumni have shared the need to remove their Dixie diplomas from their office walls after colleagues and clients expressed concerns. Countless graduates have been required to dedicate unnecessary time to explaining the history of Utah’s Dixie during competitive job interviews. Others admitted they can’t wear Dixie clothing in the areas where they live due to the national meaning of the word. These are not the stories I like to hear, nor should they ever need to be told.

In addition, we learned of a national retailer refusing to carry our merchandise, financial entities turning down opportunities to partner with us, faculty and staff being hindered in their ability to share research and promote DSU and more. Consequently, the university’s administration determined it was time to study the impacts of including Dixie in the name of our institution.

This fall, we commissioned Cicero Group to conduct a comprehensive study among stakeholders from Southern Utah, the entire state and the university’s recruiting region. The resulting data were enlightening, including:

• 22% of recent graduates looking for jobs outside of Utah have had an employer express concern with the name Dixie on their résumé

• 42% of respondents from our recruiting region and 22% of respondents from Utah say the name makes them less likely to attend DSU

• 52% of recent alumni who live outside of the state feel the name has a negative impact on the brand

At first glance, the data may appear to provide a compelling reason to retain the Dixie name, with 55% of all respondents in favor of keeping it. However, the numbers convey a big problem, as an institution’s name should be accepted by nearly 100% of stakeholders. For nearly half of respondents, the university’s name alone deters them from the institution.

As preparing students for the careers of their dreams is at the very core of the university’s mission, retaining a name that has negatively impacted the job search process for more than one in every five of our alumni would be doing them an incredible disservice. But above all, as an open-enrollment, public institution of higher learning, it is our responsibility to create an environment that is inviting and inclusive to all people.

After poring over the study results, it became abundantly clear to the University’s Student Executive Council, Board of Trustees, University Council and my cabinet, as well as the Utah State Board of Higher Education, that we need to advocate for a name change for the sake of our students. I have a profound responsibility to the very students who trust us with their education; therefore, in good conscience, I cannot support a name that adds unnecessary hardships to securing employment.

Let me be perfectly clear, my support for a name change is not an effort to dismiss the rich heritage of the pioneers who established Southern Utah and Dixie State University. Conversely, in honor of all the Trailblazers who have sacrificed so much to build DSU, I feel a deep obligation to be as future-thinking as they were and make the right, but difficult, decision for our students.

However, unlike other organizations in the area, Dixie State utilized symbols of the Confederacy for more than 50 years, and it is time to break all ties to this history and fully embrace an identity of unity and acceptance.

I ask for your support as we take this matter to the Utah Legislature. As the institution’s name is in state statute, we anticipate the Legislature to vote on the matter this session. Please join me in standing up for our students — Utah’s future — as we continue to blaze trails and ensure every day is a great day to be a Trailblazer.

Richard B. Williams | president, Dixie State University

Richard B. Williams is the president of Dixie State University.

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