SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Senate leaders announced they will debate a bill to start a name-change process for Dixie State University in an about-face after student protesters traveled from the southern part of the state to the Capitol in Salt Lake City to make their voices heard.
A Senate committee will consider a revised version of the bill that would require community input in the name change process, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Last week, the bill was stalled by a lawmaker in the Senate after House approval.
Guillem Parra, an international student from Spain studying finance, said the issue comes down to "opportunity."
"I truly believe that a university should give a better opportunity to its students. I have a couple of my peers who have really impactful experiences of how their lives have improved because of that opportunity the university has given them," Parra said.
About 50 students carried signs urging lawmakers to vote on the bill earlier Wednesday as they gathered in front of the Capitol steps in the biting cold. They joined in chants such as: "The racist name has got to go," as two counterprotesters carrying signs in support of the name Dixie tried to shout over them.
The dust-up among students, community members, lawmakers and Dixie State University began after the university's board of trustees voted to change the name, prompted by a study conducted by the Cicero Group that looked into the name's effect on students, alumni and others.
Members of the community who support keeping the name have alleged the decision to change the name took place without their input.
HB278 as now written 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 by November. Adams said that timeline likely won't change. But lawmakers are discussing whether to remove a stipulation in the current bill that would require the name "Dixie" to be removed.
Additional details about what the revised bill might look like have not been released.
"I think everyone's anticipating that the community needs to have input and buy-in and I think whether we require the name to change now or actually look at it later, I think the ultimate report will actually determine what name is used and what name gets changed," Adams said.
Student body president Penny Mills described the community's opposition to the name change as unfair.
"I don't think it's fair that the community's ... opinion and like desire to hold onto history is more important than us kind of moving forward and building what could be history," Mills said.
"The reason that students go to an institution of higher education is to receive an education and for opportunity, and to continue that throughout their lives. And so if the name of our institution is impacting that and impeding that, then I think it definitely needs to change," she said.
While she loves the university, Mills said "the name is impacting students."
"I've seen how the university has blessed my life, and I don't want that to stop. I don't want to have to talk to a possible employer most likely outside of Utah, because here in Utah we understand what the term Dixie means, and have to sit down in an interview and have to defend the name of my university. Which I would do if that were the case, but it's just not something that you as a student are looking forward to," Parra said.
He said he "fell in love with St. George" as an exchange student in high school at Snow Canyon. He believed he would get a better education in the U.S. than in Spain, and would return with "something to be proud of."
"It's just tough to see this divide, this conflict. It's not good for anybody. And we just hope that we're going to resolve this problem in a way that hopefully everybody can become closer again," Parra said.
Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, has repeatedly pointed to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll that found 61% of Utahns say the public university should not change its name. Ipson says he believes more work needs to be done to involve the community.
But he had nothing but praise for the students who protested on Wednesday.
"What a classy group of folks," Ipson said. "That's what they have the right to do, to be with us, to protest or whatever it is they want to do. And I commend them and the university for the very dignified way they presented themselves today."
"It's a good process, and I think we'll get to a good place. And the process works," Ipson said.
Abigail Scherzinger, chief of staff for the student association, expressed frustration about senators' previous reported decision not to debate the bill.
"It's affecting students' futures, and I want to look out for my peers and students that are coming into the university as well as myself. You know, I would be lying if I said that I wasn't worried about getting into the master's program that I want because it's outside of Utah," Scherzinger said.
"I think that all of this is about the future, and we're not trying to erase the past. We love Dixie. We don't want to change it, but we need to, because it is affecting the future," she said.
While the term "doesn't mean anything bad" in southern Utah, according to Scherzinger, it can lead those outside the state to view the community as racist.
Responding to the argument that those who don't like the name don't need to go to the university, Scherzinger noted that Dixie is one of the most inexpensive universities.
"And some people don't have a choice. If they want a college education, they have to go where they can afford. And we do have a lot of people that choose not to come, and that's affecting their futures as well because imagine how many more students we could get if we changed the name, and everybody felt welcome," she said.
I believe now is the right time to make this change. Waiting any longer would do a great disservice to students and employers and unnecessarily prolong the divisive debate within our communities. (3/3) #utpol#utleg— Speaker Brad Wilson (@BradWilsonGOP) February 23, 2021
Sponsor of HB278, Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, praised the students for making the more than three-hour trek to speak out.
"Your being here makes a huge difference and being part of the process. This is all about educating and helping our Dixie State University students get good jobs."
He urged students to get their families and friends to reach out to lawmakers to urge them to debate the bill on the Senate floor.
When asked what kind of impact students had on lawmakers' decision, Miles said: "I think we're all human, all of the senators and the House members. And whenever you see bright, educated people come to you and say, 'This is important to us,' especially with the fact that these are students, right, and it impacts our students. So I think it will have a real impact on our colleagues."
Nationally, the term 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 with a bison dubbed Brooks after Samuel Brooks, the first student to attend St. George Stake Academy.