Dixie State students return from Capitol, senate leadership says bill will be debated

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — Dozens of Dixie State University students have returned home to southern Utah after rallying at the Capitol Wednesday, urging lawmakers to vote on the bill to change the institution’s name.

Cory O’Bray, a senior at the university who made the four-hour trek on a bus from St. George, tells ABC4 News he feels he and his peers made a difference.

“We felt very supported, and we actually had the Utah Board of Higher Education reach out to us and provide lunch for us to show their support,” O’Bray said. “I’m comparing this name change to a bandaid. If you rip a bandaid off, it’s going to hurt a little bit; but, if you rip it off slowly, it’s going to hurt more.”

O’Bray was one of about 50 students who gathered in front of the Capitol steps to voice the impact the ‘Dixie’ name is having on their current and future professional success.

Yet, the university administration says it’s concerned there may not be enough time for House Bill 278 to reach the Senate floor, which first needs to make it through the Senate Rules Committee.

“That’s our concern, and I think that’s what drove students to get in a bus and head to Salt Lake City,” Dr. Jordon Sharp, the university’s vice president of marketing and communication, told ABC4 News.

“We’re watching the clock. A lot can happen in just over a week at the Capitol, and we’ll be there ready and waiting. We’re hopeful,” Sharp added.

The Senate has been reluctant to take up the bill since it passed the House of Representatives 51-20 two weeks ago. Senate leadership says it’s still working on specifics of the bill in an effort to bring more community input into the process.

While supporters of a name change say the term “Dixie” is problematic because of its connection to the Confederacy and slavery, the Cicero group impact study showed the vast majority of southwestern Utah’s general population does not support the name change and is unlikely to be swayed.

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.

“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.”

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.

Yet Dr. Richard “Biff” Williams, the university’s president, says he hopes that the community will realize that the real purpose around the bill is to serve students.

“This is not a popularity contest,”  Dr. Richard “Biff” Williams, the university’s president, said. “When I hear that people say we haven’t discussed this, we’ve discussed this for 30 years.”

Williams tells ABC4 News he knows the “Dixie” term has been an issue for decades as they’ve needed to remove the Confederate flag on campus and its Confederate soldier mascot named Rodney the Rebel.  

According to the Cicero study, 22% of recent DSU graduates seeking work outside of Utah had potential employers express concern over “Dixie” on their resume.

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.

The report also found that recruitment of faculty and staff is made more challenging, and student recruitment, especially outside of Utah, is negatively impacted.

“We won’t be able to stop because we know our students are being harmed, and we need to be able to look into their eyes and say that we’re doing everything possible to remove all obstacles for them both at Dixie State University and when they leave,” Williams said. “If it doesn’t move forward, we will continue to have to advocate for our students.”

State senators confirmed Wednesday they will hear the bill before the end of the session next Thursday.

Williams confirmed with ABC4 News that if the bill does not pass during this legislative session, the university will work to re-introduce legislation during the next session.

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