ST. GEORGE — As a debate in southern Utah continues to rage about whether or not to change the name of Dixie State University, a local lawmaker said national events like the death of George Floyd last year politicized the name change and damaged the school's efforts to include residents.
"All these things blew up in our face, I would say, before we could even have what I would call a good conversation in the community about the name. And so all of the sudden it became about racism and about all these things that yes, are part of the conversation," said Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who works at the university.
But university officials were focused before national events on whether they should adopt "a name that reflects the goal of the institution," Last said during a panel with other southern Utah legislators at Dixie State University's Institute of Politics and Public Affairs in St. George on Thursday.
The university is implementing a "polytechnic model" in its strategic plan, Last noted, acknowledging that "a lot of people don't know what that means, and it can be confusing."
Polytechnic schools focus on career paths such as engineering, technology and applied sciences. He said that was the biggest factor in conversation among school leaders in considering a name change to reflect the new educational direction.
The university recently released a survey seeking input on potential new names — some of the names being considered include the terms "polytechnic" or "technology."
Meanwhile, members of the community continue to protest what they view as a small group trying to cancel the history tied to the term Dixie, which they say does not denote racism or the South in Utah.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation that creates a process to develop a recommendation for a new name for the university. Under Utah law, only the state Legislature has authority to change a public college or university name.
An early version of HB278, which passed handily in the House, created a process for recommending a name change but said the university's name could not be Dixie State University. The bill stalled in the Senate over some leaders' concerns that the public process over the proposed name change had been insufficient.
Lawmakers eventually compromised on substitute legislation, which called for a more extensive public process and did not prohibit a future recommendation of Dixie State as the university's name. Under the legislation, higher education officials are expected to deliver a recommendation to legislative leaders later this year.
Students are coming from all over the world and departing to work all over the world, Last said, calling it a "sad thing" that the issue of the name change has turned "negative."
The process to potentially change the name has been slowed down, but "we'll continue to work on it and come up with the very best solution that we can for the institution," Last said.
Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said he's had a few thousand people reach out to him about the name change.
"This issue started out to be kind of binary, like an on switch or off switch, like will the name be changed or no?" he said.
The debate began in a "divisive way," he said, with many local residents questioning the "process and timing" of the proposed name change.
"We don't want it to happen quickly up at the Capitol before the local community, us, have had a full chance to be able to weigh in and have our insights communicated as well," Seegmiller said, quoting his constituents.
During the panel with lawmakers, one member of the public questioned why the state is spending money to consider the university name change when some residents are dealing with job losses and rising gas prices brought on by the pandemic
Senate Budget Vice Chairman Don Ipson, R-St. George, noted rising gas prices aren't due to increased state taxes but national supply issues.
"In fact, we gave $100 million tax decrease during the past legislative session," Ipson said.
Vince Brown, director of the Institute of Politics and Public Affairs at the university, noted that ethnic and racial minorities comprise 25% of Dixie State University. He asked what those who work at the university can do to make it more of an inclusive and welcome place.
"The community starts with neighbors. We need to be good neighbors. It doesn't matter who moves in next to you, you need to welcome them and become their friends," Ipson said.
Politically, he acknowledged that southern Utah is largely Republican, but he urged lawmakers to "listen to all sides and try to look at it through different lenses."
New residents "come to Dixie, they come to St. George, they come to our area, they stay. They don't leave. We have an incredible lifestyle, we have an incredible culture," Ipson said.
While there are exceptions, he said, "I think we must be doing something right, because we have incredible growth."