SALT LAKE CITY — Dixie State University took another step toward a name change Wednesday after the House Education Committee voted 12-2 in support of HB278.
Sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, the bill would require the university's trustees, in consultation with the Utah Board of Higher Education, to select and recommend a new name for the four-year institution in St. George.
It also would require the Legislature's Education Interim Committee to prepare and consider legislation incorporating the new name for the institution in Utah Code, which suggests the process will not be finalized during the current session that ends March 5.
The committee votes moved the bill to the House for further consideration.
Amid over two hours of impassioned public testimony and debate, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who works at the university, said his thinking has evolved from getting a "sick feeling" in his stomach at the thought of changing the name and wondering if he could continue to work there "if this isn't Dixie."
After a lot of study and listening to many people, Last said, he's come to appreciate "we have a responsibility to do the very best we can for our students. And I think the name is a bit of a distraction or deterrence to the success of our students."
Last said he felt "completely comfortable supporting the bill. I believe it's the right thing to do and I believe it will help set the course for an amazing future for Dixie State University, and I really encourage all of you to support this bill."
The two Southern Utah representatives on the committee split their votes, with Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, voting no and Last voting for it.
Others pushed back against the bill, including a few faculty members and current students.
Stephen Wade, a former chairman of the university's board of trustees, said the proposed name change "has not been thoroughly vetted by the community."
Tim Anderson, a St. George attorney, said "the community is not on board" and he presented letters to the committee from the mayors of St. George and Santa Clara, who oppose the change.
DSU student Kanton Vause says a majority of students do not want to change the university's name. "There is a great name for the university. It is Dixie State University. It is a name that we love. It is a name that we wish to keep."
The bill was amended to allow the university to call its St. George campus "Dixie Campus," which Last said was intended as an "olive branch."
Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, spoke against the amendment. "I think we need a clean break. If we're going to change the name, then we're going to change the name," she said.
Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he received some 900 emails from supporters and opponents of HB278. "So obviously, this is an issue of passion for many," Waldrip said.
Dozens of people signed up to testify before the committee, both in person and by remote.
Dixie State President Richard "Biff" Williams said he did not seek to change the name but after hearing from a lot of students that the name is problematic for them as they seek admission to graduate schools or apply for jobs, he's become convinced a change is needed.
"After a lot of listening, after a lot of thought, after a lot of study and contemplation, I don't really feel that we should change the name but we must change our name in order to move the university forward," Williams said.
Williams said discussions about the name have been going on for 30 years but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd's death last summer while in police custody and Intermountain Healthcare changing the name of its hospital from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital, effective in January.
The university's trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education both unanimously supported resolutions in support of a name change.
Some who opposed the bill urged lawmakers to resist "cancel culture."
St. George resident Jeff Jennings said statues, buildings and schools are coming under attack nationwide. "This isn't eliminating this name that's going to make the counterculture happy. They'll just pick a new battle as soon as this is over."
Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said he shared similar concerns. The university's name is a local issue and he didn't want to deal with it as a state lawmaker, he said.
"Just give it to the locals. Let them figure it out. Push it down to Washington County," he said.
The names of public colleges and universities are codified in state statute, which is why DSU trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education referred the matter to the Utah Legislature.
In Utah, Dixie is "positive and favorable," Robertson said.
"The meaning has been changed by our culture, which is horribly unfortunate," he said. Robertson also voted against the bill.
But others, such as Dave Clark, chairman of Dixie State's trustees and a former House speaker, said there are real-life implications associated with the name.
When his son, then a second-year law student, interviewed with law firms in New York and Washington, D.C., he encountered multiple questions about his undergraduate degree from Dixie State University.
Clark said the proposed statutory change "is not a binary choice" between the name Dixie and southern Utah heritage.
"Instead, this is an opportunity to fulfill our ancestors' legacy by doing what is needed to lay the foundation for the next generation and create a brighter future," Clark said.
Penny Mills, DSU's student body president, said she is "terrified" for her future after investing considerable time and paying thousands of dollars earning her degree and "not know if I'll have a job afterward."
But others, including faculty member and alumni, said they have not encountered any issues because they teach at or graduated from a college or university named Dixie.
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, according to a university website.
Nationally, Dixie has become increasingly problematic as the nation has begun to reckon with racial inequality. In June, the country music group known as the Dixie Chicks changed its name to "The Chicks," acknowledging protests during the summer of 2020 led band members to reconsider how that word makes some of their fans feel.
In recent years, the university has taken other steps as concerns were raised over the institution's name, mascot and Confederate imagery on campus. A statue titled "The Rebels," which depicted a horse and two Confederate soldiers, one of whom carried a Confederate battle flag, was removed from campus.
Formerly, the university's mascot was the Rebel. It was later changed to the Red Storm. In 2016, Dixie State changed its mascot again to Trailblazers and its mascot to a bison dubbed Brooks after Samuel Brooks, the first student to attend St. George Stake Academy.