Tribune Editorial: Time for Dixie State University to get a new name

Utah school and its graduates are harmed by the public perception of its meaning.

"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)

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

— Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride” 1987

Alumni of Utah’s Dixie State University and the good people of the St. George area may well be sincere in their feeling that no offense is meant by the name of that public college and none should be taken. That the name is an homage to the history of their own region and nothing to do with the old nickname of the short-lived treasonous nation known as the Confederate States of America.

But DSU fans, students and graduates do not have the power to tell the rest of the world what that name should mean. And, once one gets beyond the borders of Utah, the widespread interpretation of the term “Dixie” is that it is a relic of slavery and racism.

That misunderstanding is not just awkward or confusing. It is seriously damaging to the purpose of a university, which is to prepare its graduates to move out into the world with wisdom, confidence and the opportunity to make a good living.

The DSU Board of Trustees has made the motion, seconded by the Utah Board of Higher Education, that the southernmost and newest university-level school in the state system change its name to something less, well, subject to misinterpretation. The university’s staff association board, faculty senate and student executive council all support the move as well.

The final decision will be up to the Utah Legislature, which should waste no time in approving it.

DSU leaders commissioned a study from Cicero, a Salt Lake City-based research and consulting firm, which produced a detailed report on the perception of the university based on its name, not just in St. George and in Utah, but among graduates, potential students and possible employers elsewhere in the nation. Bottom line: It doesn’t help.

To prosper as a university, DSU needs to be able to attract students, faculty and administrators from across the country. The racist connotation the school’s name conjures up in the minds of many, especially younger people and Black people, is a serious disincentive to recruitment.

Alumni report being embarrassed to wear Dixie State T-shirts or jackets outside of southwest Utah, and note that the name has been difficult to explain to people reading their resumes.

Dixie was a name used by some for that portion of the state well before the school existed. Early settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints included immigrants from the American South, and early settlements endeavored to grow cotton there.

But school leaders have long been aware of the downside. They have already given up Confederate imagery, including the Rebels nickname, a statute of a Confederate soldier and the Confederate battle flag. But, the results of the study show, it hasn’t been enough.

Intermountain Healthcare, also worried about its image and its ability to recruit qualified staff, has already changed the name of its Dixie Regional Medical Center to St. George Regional Hospital.

The next step will be to come up with a new, more inclusive name, something indigenous to the region and not imported. Officials have pledged to involve not only students and faculty in that effort, but also representatives of the larger community.

A new name could pay tribute to the surrounding red rock landscape or the city of St. George or Washington County. Or the school could take on some aspirational, forward-looking moniker.

But there should be a new name.