Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers could address a proposed name change for Dixie State University as soon as a special session in November or wait until the Utah Legislature's 2022 general session, which begins Jan. 18.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said it has not yet been determined when lawmakers will take up the position of the Utah Board of Education, which voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend renaming the St. George institution as Utah Tech University.
"We made a decision in February, by and large, to change the name. Then we charged the higher ed board and the trustees to deliver a recommendation on the name. So that's the next vote for us, on the name they're recommending," said Wilson, R-Kaysville, during a media briefing Wednesday.
The higher education board's vote was the latest milestone in an effort by university leaders to retire the university's name, which some perceive has racist connotations.
Discussions about the name have been going on for 30 years but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd's murder last summer while in police custody, according to DSU President Richard "Biff" Williams.
In January, Intermountain Healthcare changed the name of its hospital in Washington County from Dixie Regional Medical Center to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital.
The nation's social justice reckoning also prompted the country music group formerly known as the Dixie Chicks to change its name to "The Chicks."
Following the higher education board's vote, the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, which opposes the name change, announced it has launched an "aggressive advertising campaign to inform Utah lawmakers of the overwhelming statewide opposition to changing the name of Dixie State University."
The campaign includes television advertisements, radio spots, digital media, social media, email marketing, billboards and direct mail, according to a coalition press release.
"We will stand firm and do whatever we can to keep 'Utah's Dixie' from being demonized by those wishing to engage in persistent attacks on the culture, history, heritage and tradition of southern Utah," said coalition member Tim Anderson, a St. George attorney.
The recommendation is now in the Legislature's court. Only state lawmakers have the statutory authority to name public colleges and universities.
Board member Alan Hall said a vote for recommending the name change presents "an exciting opportunity to move forward because a brand really is a promise of what we're going to provide our students."
But others, like board member Scott L. Theurer, said he did not believe Utah Tech "is the appropriate name for one institution representing 7% of the population and about 6% of the credentials" awarded annually by the Utah System of Higher Education.
Board member Arthur Newell said he is concerned how the Utah System of Higher Education would differentiate Utah Tech University from the state's eight technical colleges.
"That's something down the road we've got to figure out," he said.
Board Chairman Harris Simmons said he believes the St. George institution, as a well-established four-year university, would not be confused with Utah's public technical colleges also under the board's purview.
In a statement issued after the vote, Simmons said DSU's trustees worked extensively with education stakeholders and the public "to develop a strong name that will lead the university into the future both locally and nationally. We look forward to our continued work with DSU and the Legislature to see the proposed name of Utah Tech University forward."
Tiffany Wilson, chairwoman of the DSU Board of Trustees, said the process to arrive at the Utah Tech University recommendation has been "beyond exhaustive."
The trustees' responsibility is to serve and represent the well-being and best interests of the university's students, she said.
"Regardless of our personal attachments or previous perceptions, it has become very clear that this name is a challenge. If it's a challenge today, just think about the challenge that it will continue to become over time. I believe it will only become more and more challenging for students with each passing decade," Wilson said.
Wilson, a Dixie State alumna, said she recently looked at her college yearbook, titled "The Confederate." There was a Confederate flag on the book's cover and it included multiple photos of students waving confederate flags at sporting events, she said.
"How did we not see that could be a problem?" Wilson said.
Tanner Marcum, a student member of the higher education board, read a letter from DSU student leaders, who supported the Utah Tech name.
It will enable the university to compete nationally. It has a strong acronym and logo opportunities. It will bring us in line with peer institutions and it will provide a great significance to the surrounding region and state.
–Julie Beck, DSU Trustee
DSU's name "detracts from the university's mission and students. Our name should not hold any student back from reaching their full potential and achieving their dreams," the letter said in part.
A study by the Cicero Group commissioned by the university in 2020 to consider the impacts of the Dixie name found that it had become "increasingly problematic for our students and alumni" due to racial connotations, and it has hindered the university's ability to recruit students, faculty and staff. Moreover, it has limited its ability to build partnerships and obtain grants and funding."
The Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition rejects the notion that the university's name has a racist connotation. Members say the area became known as Dixie because Latter-day Saint pioneers went to southern Utah to grow crops that were cultivated in the South such as cotton.
During a recent meeting, coalition leaders broached the idea of seeking a statewide referendum in the event that state lawmakers pass legislation to change the university's name.
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.
Legislation proposed during the Legislature's 2021 general session directed the Utah Board of Higher Education to recommend a new name for the four-year institution.
HB278, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, sailed out of committee and passed in the House but stalled in the Senate amid concerns that the process had been rushed and the community had not had sufficient opportunity for input.
In the waning days of the session, lawmakers passed a substantially amended bill that called for an extensive public process with respect to the university's name. It set a Nov. 1 deadline for the Board of Higher Education to make a recommendation to the legislative leaders.
Immediately following the legislative session, the university launched a public process that included a community survey, 47 focus groups and multiple listening tours.
University spokeswoman Jyl Hall, in a previous statement, said university officials "feel very confident the process has been thorough, transparent and inclusive."
In June, a name recommendation committee appointed by the university trustees forwarded the name Utah Polytechnic State University to the trustees along with a recommendation that the university's nickname be Utah Tech.
Former DSU Trustee Julie Beck, who chaired the committee, told the higher education board Wednesday that the process was "an important effort. We know it was very clear from the outset, this could not be a popularity contest. Names are sensitive ... and they mean different things to different people. We knew that we had to follow the statute very carefully."
The committee's process "was an exhaustive pursuit," Beck said.
In July, the trustees voted unanimously to forward the name Utah Tech University to the Board of Higher Education "after receiving significant stakeholder and public feedback," according to board documents.
Beck said the work led to a clear and "only choice" of the Utah Tech University name moving forward.
"It will enable the university to compete nationally. It has a strong acronym and logo opportunities. It will bring us in line with peer institutions and it will provide a great significance to the surrounding region and state," she said.
Contributing: Katie McKellar