Why Dixie State University wants a name change

Dixie State University in St. George is pictured on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. The school’s board of trustees voted Monday to change the name of the university.

(Ravell Call, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dixie State University leaders have discussed the possibility of a name change for decades.

"Dixie" is a beloved name for some residents in the St. George area since the southern Utah region was first settled in the 1800s. It's been tied to the school's name for over a century now; however, the term's legacy outside of the region is vastly different.

It's a name tied to the South and to the Civil War's Confederate States of America, which is associated with slavery. It's a term that's only grown more divisive over time. That led to issues for alumni trying to seek out-of-state work, for faculty and staff trying to build connections with colleagues outside of the area, and for recruiting out-of-state students — a large percentage of its student body.

Then in the summer of 2020, the fallout from the death of George Floyd in Minnesota led to widespread discussions of social injustice and systemic racism. Those conversations included looking at terms that are racially charged, including "Dixie."

For Dixie State University President Richard Williams and other university leaders, it led to a larger spike in emails and calls from alumni and staff who reported they were struggling to find work or make connections as a result of the university's name. It led to a study of the name and now a push to rename the university.

That process took another big step Monday as a Utah legislator introduced a bill that creates the framework for Dixie State University's Board of Trustees to change the university's name. If approved, the university will have nearly the remainder of the year to come up with a new name for the university to submit to the Utah Board of Higher Education.

It's a move that's gained global news coverage over the past few weeks, and one that's been met with a mixed bag of reactions. With all sorts of opinions tossed around, Dixie State University leaders want to set the record straight on their motive.

Williams and other administration officials spoke with KSL and the Deseret News about the decision during a joint editorial board meeting Monday afternoon. The change, they contend, has very little to do with politics and everything to do with the impact it has on students.

"Many people have asked: Did (Black Lives Matter) contact you? Did Antifa? Did the far-left? None of that happened," Williams said. "It was our students that were reaching out and our alumni saying, 'Can you please look at this? Can you please listen?'"

The move away from 'Dixie'

Dixie State University first opened in 1911 as St. George Stake Academy, according to the school's website. "Dixie" is a term that's been associated with the school since 1913, when it was renamed Dixie Academy.

It's gone through five name changes since then, but all five carried the term "Dixie" with it. The school's last name change came in 2013 when it became Dixie State University.

The term, which is mostly associated with Southern states, was coined for southern Utah well before the school was even built, hence why the term can be found in use all over the region.

There's a couple of reasons for that date back to the 1850s. The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees Dixie National Forest, explained that pioneer settlers arrived in the area only to find it was warm like the southeastern U.S. Many southerners who moved westward found their way to the region and name stuck.

The Washington County Historical Society explains that the region was also believed to be a place to grow cotton. Given the likelihood of the upcoming Civil War at the time, Brigham Young instructed more settlers in the region at the tail end of the 1850s to grow cotton to keep up Utah's supply once war broke out.

Whatever the reason was, the name stuck. But the school's use of the term ran into problems over time. It faced pressure from groups like Utah's NAACP chapter that called for it to change its name over the term's ties to the South and slavery.

We knew that our students were going to have a struggle because the word 'Dixie' is just not understood as they go out and get jobs out into the U.S.

–Dixie State University President Richard Williams

At the same time students, staff and alumni had reported back various issues tied to the school's name. Dixie State leaders commissioned Cicero Group to look deep into the name for better analysis. The company's report, which was published late last year, was damning.

It found that about 1 in 5 recent out-of-state graduates — those who graduated between 2010 and 2020 — reported that their employer either expressed concerns or likely would express concerns over the school's name. Nearly half of the faculty and staff surveyed reported that higher education colleagues elsewhere believed Dixie State University was somewhere in the South.

Only 22% responded that others were accepting of the name, and just 8% reported that others knew the history of the name.

On top of creating issues for staff and former students, the study found potential issues with future enrollment. The group polled students in Dixie State's "recruitment region" — which includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada — and found 41% of respondents were less likely to attend because of the name; it was 22% within Utah, Williams added.

That's because on top of being confusing for many people outside of Utah, the term's association with the Confederates in American history led to issues. One person from outside of Utah said the school's name would lead them to believe the university was "insensitive to the history of this country and the association of the word Dixie."

Williams said they were told a university brand should be close to a 100% acceptance but found 25% or higher disapproval with the name in all of the different groups polled. These were key issues for Dixie State's leaders, who said they were torn with the decision to part ways with the name that was valued highly in the region it's located in.

The school's Board of Trustees approved a measure to change the school's name in December.

"We understand the grit and the sacrifice, the pioneering spirit behind (the name). But when you have students coming to you saying they can't get a job or it's hurting them in an interview, that's a problem," Williams said.

"We realize that everybody in St. George loves the name and reveres the name. We knew that," he quickly added. "We also discovered that the word 'Dixie' has an entirely different meaning once you get outside of St. George. … We knew that our students were going to have a struggle because the word 'Dixie' is just not understood as they go out and get jobs out into the U.S."

It's clear that the decision is still controversial in St. George even weeks after trustees voted to change the name. For example, the university posted a video tied to the decision to Facebook on Jan. 21. It was met with over 300 comments with views all over the place. While some supported the change, others argued it wasn't necessary or the motive behind it.

"Dixie represents the sacrifice and accomplishments of many generations," one person wrote. "To dishonor the name is to dishonor the legacy, respect and time held tradition of love and pride held by the community, the student body with diplomas bearing the name and fore-bearers that gave such sacrifice for her establishment. I VOTE FOR DIXIE to remain. But we really are not voting here are we?"

A pathway to a new name

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, introduced a bill earlier Monday that provides the process for the university to change its name. Miles is the House Chair for the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and began working with the university on a bill after its board of trustees voted in favor of the name change.

If passed, HB 278 would set a Nov. 1 deadline for the university to provide the state with a new name for the university.

The proposed legislation also instructs the university's board of trustees to consult with the Utah Board of Higher Education on a name change that "involves the opportunity for input and collaboration with the public, including: residents of southwestern Utah; institutional partners; and university faculty, staff, students, and alumni."

The new name would not include the term "Dixie" and must reflect "the institution's mission and significance to the surrounding region and state."

The Board of Higher Education would have the authority to approve the decision proposed by the university's board of trustees or otherwise ask the university for another name.

The bill is set to be discussed in the subcommittee this week. Williams said that it appears to have strong support from the state House of Representatives, though support was not as clear with the Utah Senate. The results of the Cicero study is one of the key talking points behind the name change.

"We feel like (the Utah House of Representatives) have recognized that our students come first," he said. "We made a lot of progress with the Senate. We're not quite there yet. We do have a few of our locals that are focused on their constituents and making sure that they are representing them."

Should the bill pass, the university expects to use a process similar to when it renamed the school mascot to the "Trailblazers" in 2016. It was previously the "Rebels" before a brief stint as the "Red Storm" from 2009 to 2016.

That means there will be a process to submit names and there will be town hall meetings for students, staff, alumni and community members to figure out the best future name for the university.

Jordan Sharp, vice president of marketing and communications at the university, said about 6,000 people were included in the process five years ago to find a new mascot name.

As for the debate now, he said the university recently received a letter in support of the name change signed by the other Utah higher education institution presidents. Alumni like Lionel Hollins, who went on to play and coach in the NBA, and researcher Greg Prince have also voiced support of a name change.

Cost of a name change — and status quo

It's still unclear what the new name of the university would be; however, university leaders estimate that it will cost $2 million to $2.5 million to replace all signage. Some of the signage change would be immediate while other signage change could be phased out over time.

Sharp pointed out that signage is often replaced over time, so that cost would have happened regardless of a name change. One example is that basketball floors are redone every few years.

He added that the study found that every 1% who said they didn't want to come to the university over its name costs it $350,000.

"Then you times that over three or four years that a student would be there; in all reality, the costs of rebranding are honestly pennies on the dollar compared to the recruiting loss," Sharp argued.

Williams added that they have heard from sponsors that would help pay for rebranding costs. The university also anticipates a hit from local donors upset over the name change, but that hit isn't expected to be large enough to reverse any decision the university has made to this point.

"It is clear we will have people stop donating because of this; we have people stop donating because we went from 'Rebel' to 'Red Storm,'" adding that threats to stop donations didn't necessarily equate to a drop in donation dollars it received overall.

"We are concerned about our community. We don't want them to be hurt; we don't want the heritage to go away. We love the community we live in," he continued. "This is purely a decision that's made for what's best for our students and for the university moving forward."

But the costs could go beyond the university itself. Penny Mills, Dixie State University's student body president, co-authored an opinion piece in favor of the name change that appeared online for the Deseret News on Sunday.

She defended the op-ed Monday, saying it's clear that some current students would be affected if nothing changed.

"Me, representing over 12,000 students, it's very scary to think about all of them," she said. "I don't know how many of them would be impacted by the name — I know that there would be a lot — but I can't help but think about my friends that might not get a job because of the name of our university. To me, that's too many."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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