Scott N. Howell: Now we know enough to change the name of Dixie State University

The school has gotten past its Confederate images and will thrive with a new name.

(Trevor Christensen | The Spectrum) Workers remove a statue of Confederate solders from the Dixie State College campus on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2012.

The night I suited up as a Dixie Rebel for my first collegiate game in 1972 remains a highlight of my life. And if no one else remembers my brief football career it doesn’t diminish the richness of my early college experience on the field, in the classroom, in the dorm and in the community of St. George. I will always love Dixie State.

Dixie didn’t have a football stadium then, so we played in the rodeo arena. With no locker room nearby, Coach Tom Ramage gave half-time pep talks in the bull chutes while the mascot, Rodney the Rebel, in military gray, circled the arena on a galloping horse and waved the Stars and Bars.

Nearly a half-century ago, we weren’t troubled that our mascot depicted an enemy of the United States. We were kids out for fun who maybe liked the vibe of rebelliousness — not that we ever thought about it deeply. As a white Utah college freshman of my time, I had a better grasp of football than of history.

Those years ago may have seemed like simpler times when we didn’t see what we didn’t see.

Dixie State has moved on since then by retiring the Confederate rebel mascot and replacing it with the Trailblazer. The bison image is just as untamed, but a new image that points us forward to a future after an old one mired us in a problematic past.

We can see that now.

Dixie State also moved on by retiring the Confederate flag in favor of its own banner. It’s still a flag full of attitude, and it waves proudly, without subtext of treason or any association with slavery.

We can see that now.

My freshman roommate was Lynn Lanier, an African-American student from Mobile, Alabama. I never had a conversation with him about those old images. I didn’t ask how they made him feel. I wish I had. We could have had a good conversation. I might have learned some things. I might have understood some things. But I didn’t see what I didn’t see.

I can see that now.

Over the sweep of a half century, Dixie State eventually grew past the Secession Ball with costumed Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara reigning over the campus plantation. Student events like mock slave auctions and black-face skits also went away after we had sinned in ignorance for far too long, caught in a trap of tradition.

We can see that clearly, now.

Dixie State is better than it was — better than it’s ever been. When established as St. George Stake Academy, it was just a tiny high school. Supporters who nurtured it through a series of owners and struggles could hardly have foreseen it becoming today’s university of more than 11,000 students.

Happily, we can see it now.

The earliest students at the school had never ventured far from their corner of southern Utah. Today, the university community is made up of a highly diverse population. Almost 2,000 students come from out of state. Nearly a fourth of the school’s students have minority backgrounds.

I recently listened to one such student articulate what the word “Dixie” meant to her as a person of color. It was a reminder, she felt, “That you don’t fit in.” She said the name, “Just made it even harder.”

My roommate might have told me something similar in 1972 if only we were having those conversations. We should have been.

I can see that now.

Words matter. The relationship and differences between connotations of this word as understood in Utah’s Washington County and in the broader national consciousness have a complicated history.

History matters. We should not run from it. We should work to understand it. But we must not let ourselves be captive to the past. Time moves in only one direction.

Symbols matter. Names matter. This great school has had seven names in 109 years. It will endure — it will soar — under yet some other name that will better fit in our American experiment of e pluribus unum; out of many, one.

It is time for our school to take this next step forward.

We can see that now.

We can do it. Now.

Scott Howell Courtesy photo

Scott N. Howell is a retired business executive and former leader in the Utah Senate. His views are his own; they do not necessarily represent the views of the DSU National Advisory Committee, which he chairs, or school administrators.