SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly two hours of discussion and public testimony, a Senate committee voted 6-1 Monday to support the latest version of HB278, legislation that would set in motion a process to change the name of Dixie State University.
The substituted version of HB278 involves a "lengthy process" for the name change and "lots and lots of public feedback," Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told the Senate Education Committee.
The bill calls for a public process and for higher education officials to deliver a recommendation to the Legislative Management Committee no later than Nov. 1.
The bill requires no specific name but says if the university trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education forward a name to the Utah Legislature, a name that does not include the term Dixie, the trustees "shall all establish a heritage committee to identify and implement strategies to preserve the heritage, culture and history of the region on the campus of the institution, including the regional significance of the term 'Dixie.'"
The bill includes a one-time $500,000 appropriations request to help the preservation efforts of the heritage committee.
The bill says the name recommended by higher education officials shall reflect the institution's mission and significance to the surrounding region and state, as well as enable it to "compete and be recognized nationally."
As originally drafted, HB278 said the university's new name could not include the term "Dixie." That language does not appear in the bill supported by the committee.
The bill was sponsored by Miles with McKell as the Senate floor sponsor; neither are from southern Utah. The substitute bill lists Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, as floor sponsor, suggesting it was more palatable to his constituents.
In the House, only one representative from southern Utah voted for the bill, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane. Last is Dixie State's vice president of advancement.
The committee heard public comment from dozens of students, alumni and community leaders. Some said the community had not been part of the process now before lawmakers, and the change was tantamount to cancel culture.
Some students and recent graduates urged a name change because the name Dixie was harming their employment and graduate school prospects.
HB278 passed handily in the Utah House by a vote of 51-20 on Feb. 10 and appeared to stall in the Utah Senate until last week when Senate leaders announced the bill was being worked on, would be debated and was assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
DSU President Richard "Biff" Williams said Monday that the name change had been discussed for decades but sensibilities about the term "Dixie" have changed over time. An impact study commissioned by the university indicated that for some students, the name has become an impediment to their futures when they seek work or further education.
We studied this out. We know we have an issue. We need to solve it. If I don't have the courage to stand up for the students, I don't know who will.
–Richard "Biff" Williams, DSU president
"I don't think any president in their right mind would want to do this, but when you look those students in the eye, I have an obligation to advocate for them. It is my problem and that's why I'm here today," he said.
"We studied this out. We know we have an issue. We need to solve it. If I don't have the courage to stand up for the students, I don't know who will."
The division over the name was reflected in a demonstration on the DSU campus earlier in the day, with some students carrying Dixie flags and picket signs that said "No Shame in the Name," "Save Dixie" and even "Dixie Rebels," which was the university's former mascot until it was changed to the Trailblazers.
Meanwhile, a smaller group of counterprotesters shouted "Change the name now." Last week, a group of students from the university demonstrated at the Capitol urging a name change. Some met with legislative leaders.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, told the committee that "a lot of people use the term (Dixie) without understanding the racial origin of the term."
Williams said "it is time to retire the name Dixie for the Dixie State University with another name that does not reflect the Confederacy."
Others, such as St. George attorney Tim Anderson, who served more than a dozen years on the university foundation board including several years as its chairman, said, "There is not a racial history with regard to southern Utah, which has been inferred from a strategy that's been used by the university."
This story will be updated.