ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4) — Emotions ran high at Dixie State University Thursday afternoon as a board of panelists debated the proposal to change the university’s name — a decision now up to the Utah State Legislature.
Hosted by DSU’s Institute of Politics & Public Affairs, members of the school’s faculty and student body as well as local attorneys and members of the nonprofit Defending Southwest Utah Heritage Coalition participated in a passionate debate, working through the contentious issue.
The discussion comes on the heels of the DSU Board of Trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education unanimously voting to recommend an institutional name change, following the results of an impact study conducted by the firm Cicero Group that examined the positive and negative impacts of continuing to include Dixie in the university’s name.
The decision has led to heated debate and criticism among locals; according to Cicero, the vast majority of southwestern Utah’s general population clearly favors keeping the ‘Dixie’ name and is unlikely to be swayed. Researchers found that before reading all perspectives, 79% of local residents think the name should remain; after reading all perspectives, 75% still believe the ‘Dixie’ name should remain.
“It should not be taking an action that is stepping away from the community,” local attorney Tim Anderson said. “I think it’s an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound.”
Opponents of the name change emphasized the local meaning of ‘Dixie’ does not represent the Confederacy, well known in the St. George community as representing the settlers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from the 1800s and their mission to grow cotton. Anderson and Troy Blanchard, a local lawyer and spokesperson for the Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, argued that the local religious context and history should be honored and taught to outsiders.
“When you change it, abandon it, and insinuate that the history was wrong and they were racists back then, and you don’t instead try to correct things moving forward with the name, the community feels abandoned and they’ll have a tendency to walk away,” Blanchard said.
Among the findings, researchers found that the use of “Dixie” in the name is hurting employment prospects for some alums and some faculty and staff see impacts to their ability to obtain funding. Further, the report found that recruitment of faculty and staff is made more challenging, and student recruitment, especially outside of Utah, is negatively impacted.
Dr. William Christensen, DSU professor of business management and Faculty Senate president from 2020-21, argued that the university can’t control what the name means to those outside of Utah, as he read several emotional anecdotes from faculty members who describe the disparaging remarks made towards them as a result of hearing they were from DSU.
“Somebody else said, ‘the minute I said Dixie State, they instantly laughed out loud and turned their backs on me, making it clear they had no interest in collaborating with me,'” Christensen said.
“The term ‘Dixie’ not only carries negative connotations of southern slavery for some, but from a branding, marketing, and recruiting perspective, many who are unfamiliar with the institution incorrectly assume it is located somewhere in the southern state,” according to Cicero. “Confusion around the school’s location and identity adds a problematic element that may also inhibit growth and reputational aspirations.
The study determined that 41% of recent alumni who live outside of Utah said they felt uncomfortable wearing apparel with the word “Dixie” on it, that 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume and that 33% of Southern Utah residents, 41% of Utahns, and 64% of survey participants from DSU recruiting areas associated the term “Dixie” with the South or the Confederacy.
“Many of us have the honor of staying here to work, where this name is understood. A lot of these students would love to stay here, but they won’t have that opportunity,” Dr. Jordon Sharp, the university’s vice president of marketing and communication, said. “At the end of the day, we can say what we want about the brand and if it’s hurting enough, but a brand name should never hurt one of our students. It should not even be in the equation, ever.”
According to Sharp, the unrest amid a national discussion about institutional racism this summer pushed the university to reconsider consequences of the ‘Dixie’ name at its school. He said that support for the brand should be close to 100%, adding that every percent of student growth DSU loses means a $350,000 loss.
The decision will likely be addressed during the current legislative session, where a vote must take place because the institution’s name is in state statute. The university has stated that only then will they begin discussing options for a new school name.