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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that St. George's Dixie State University is inevitably going to be renamed at some point, whether it be this year or later on, to alleviate confusion and controversy surrounding the name.
Cox's comments came during a virtual meeting with reporters and after reports that a bill that would rename the school has stalled in the Utah Senate. He said the southern Utah institution must change its name to become what "it wants to become."
"A name change is going to happen," Cox said. "It just is, whether it happens now or it happens later. A change that reflects the mission of the university, and a change that can signal to the rest of the world what it is that university does."
Cox said even without the "racial connotations" of the name, it is "incredibly confusing" to people not from Utah and he fields questions about it — "Is that in Georgia?" — all the time.
He also mentioned the "difficulties" experienced by university alumni who've had to explain the name in job interviews and throughout their professional career. Such concerns have been a major driver of the push to change the school's name.
"I guess, if people just want it to be a parochial, community-college-type place, then that's certainly a direction," Cox said. "But if you want it to be a world-class university, which it has the potential to do ... then getting a name that is more reflective of what the school does and what it represents is going to be important."
Cox said he "would be prepared to sign" HB278 if it comes to his desk.
'I just want to be careful'
Before he answered questions, Cox shared an anecdote about Snow College, the Sanpete County school near his hometown, and the public reaction when it added the color orange to its blue-and-white scheme years go.
"I don't think the community has healed from that one yet," he said. "It was incredibly divisive."
Cox's point was that he understands how passionate southern Utahns are about Dixie State, but said "I just want to be careful."
"There's a lot of rhetoric around this one, too, especially on the race issue," he said. "Just because people support the name or want to keep things the way they've been, I don't think it means that they're racially insensitive or don't care about those things."
He pointed out that there were "good reasons" related to climate and agriculture why pioneers settled on "Utah's Dixie" to describe the region. But the school hasn't always shied away from Confederate imagery, formerly using the "Rebels" moniker for athletics and displaying a Confederate soldier statue on campus until 2012.
"(There) comes a time when we have to reevaluate those things," Cox said.
The Associated Press reported Friday that HB278 stalled in the Utah Senate and may not be heard this year. The controversial effort to rename the school faced backlash from southern Utahns who contend the name is about local heritage, not slavery or the South.
Cox said he wasn't aware the bill might be dead until he heard the question from Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers Friday afternoon.
"I don't know if that's breaking news or just breaking news to me," he said. "Certainly, we'll be reaching out and having those conversations."
HB278 passed the Utah House by a 51-20 vote on Feb. 10.