House approves bill to rename Dixie State University

Feb 10, 2021, 7:05 PM
Rename Dixie State University...
FILE: Dixie State University. Photo: Associated Press.

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to rename Dixie State University cleared the Utah House, making it a step closer to reality. The Utah House approved a bill that starts the renaming process despite a lot of pushback and emotional debate, sending the legislation to the state senate.

If House Bill 278 passes, the Dixie State University Board of Trustees would have to collaborate with the Utah Board of Higher Education to pick a new school name and submit it to the legislature for approval.  The bill is getting strong support from the Board of Trustees along with DSU President Richard “Biff” Williams.

Support for a Dixie State University rename

At the heart of the debate: the word “Dixie,” which many associate with southern states during the Civil War.  Supporters of the bill, like Rep. Steven Waldrip, R-Eden, say the word might not have racist connotations in Utah but it does in many other parts of the country, and opposition to the term is growing. 

“It’s simply a recognition of the reality of what is in our world today,” Waldrip said.

Waldrip says he has received around 1,000 emails from people saying the name could become a “leg weight” for graduates when they try to get work.

“If we send students out from that institution, we don’t want to send them out with leg weights and a headwind into the world where they have to spend any time defending or discussing the name of the institution that they had nothing to do with,” Waldrip said.

He elaborated in a Facebook post

I have heard from many “Dixie” citizens that to remove Dixie from the name is denigrating the pioneers who founded this area, fought to tame it, and made it bloom like a rose. I think that is a fallacy. This is not a referendum on the name of the Dixie region, nor on those that founded it. This is an institution internally making decisions and taking action to address its racist past.

Campus leaders weigh in

At first, university leaders didn’t want to change the name.  However, after speaking with student groups, they decided to back a change.  Students say “Dixie” causes problems with potential employers and graduate schools.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, D-Centerville, explained.

“They said the name needed to change, and it wasn’t that it needed to change in an abstract sense.  It was because the word ‘Dixie,’ itself, was creating problems,” he said. 

Rep. Adam Robertson R-Provo, opposed the bill, comparing it to “cancel culture,” saying prejudice is the only reason why people would take issue with the name.  However, he also acknowledged people in other states are hesitant to admit graduates from the university.  He spoke with someone who works for the admissions office of a prestigious medical school in southern California and he quoted part of their conversation.

“And, I quote, ‘I can say, unequivocally, that a graduating student from a school named Dixie State could be cause for concern and may adversely affect the chance of being chosen to attend our school,’” Robertson said.

Opposition to the bill

Opponents of the bill say people in southern Utah feel ignored; they argue the name causes no harm to the university or alumni.  Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, says the university has been steadily expanding over the years.

“Their enrollment continues to rise.  I don’t see any evidence of this hurting the university,” he said.

Other representatives, like Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, say the area has seen tremendous growth; he doubts the name of the school causes as many problems as some people may believe.

“We have people that work in Fortune 500 companies [who] have never, ever had any problems with the name ‘Dixie,’” he said.

The university’s response

After the floor debate, the House passed HB 278 by a 50-21 vote.  University officials posted a statement thanking the House for sending the bill to the Senate.

It reads: 

Dixie State University is deeply appreciative of the Utah House of Representatives’ support for our students, demonstrated by passing House Bill 278, Name Change Process for Dixie State University. We are dedicated to offering personalized and engaged learning experiences that prepare students for rewarding careers and are grateful to our state representatives for voting to remove barriers that the current institutional name presents. Dixie State looks forward to continuing to work with the Utah Senate as the bill moves to that body. We are mindful that this has been a challenging topic for our community for many years. We appreciate the many individuals who have weighed in regarding this recommendation and who continue to support our institution and students. We are confident that with the help of our community and partners, we will continue to grow a premier institution of higher learning and offer our students unparalleled opportunities, all while preserving and strengthening our heritage.

Change not new at Dixie State

The institution has had six name changes since it was established in 1911, each with Dixie except for its inaugural name, St. George Stake Academy.

Dixie State University took other steps in the recent past to address concerns over the institution’s mascot and imagery on campus. School officials removed a statue titled The Rebels, which depicted a horse and two Confederate soldiers, from campus, and changed its mascot from the Rebels to the Red Storm, then again to the Trailblazers in 2016. A bison dubbed ‘Brooks,’ after Samuel Brooks, the first student to attend St. George Stake Academy, represents the Trailblazers. 

The bill to rename Dixie State University heads to the Senate for consideration.

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House approves bill to rename Dixie State University