SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that seeks to rename Dixie State University advanced to through both houses of the Utah Legislature on Wednesday following a passionate debate at the Utah Capitol.
The Utah Senate voted 26-3 in favor of the first substitute HB278, sponsored by Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George. Since the bill was substituted after it passed the House of Representatives last month, the House was forced to re-vote the measure; the legislative body voted 48-23 late Wednesday afternoon in favor of the amended bill. It’s now on its way to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for consideration.
The original HB278 had cleared the House of Representatives with a 51-20 vote on Feb. 10, but the bill wasn’t taken up by the Senate Education Committee until earlier this week. In fact, a group of the university’s students traveled up from St. George to the Utah State Capitol last month to protest the Senate’s pause of the bill at the time.
Ipson’s substitute bill ultimately passed the committee on Monday. The bill calls for the university’s trustees and higher education officials to deliver a recommendation to the Legislative Management Committee no later than Nov. 1 following a public process on a name change. Ipson said it instructs feedback from the university, alumni, community leaders, southwestern Utah residents and local businesses.
If a name submitted doesn’t include the term “Dixie” at that time, the trustees would then create a Heritage Committee with the task of identifying and implementing “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 $500,000 fiscal note should the need of the committee emerge. Ipson could that it could lead to the creation of a museum or monument for the “heritage” of the region.
It passed following a 20-minute discussion about the bill on the Senate floor, where several senators said they reluctantly supported the bill. They used the floor time before the vote to rail against “cancel culture” that they blamed for the need for the bill.
“I don’t believe the name is racist but I understand the perception. I understand that we’re living in 2021,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, adding that he didn’t understand why other schools, like Yale, haven’t faced as much scrutiny.
Yale University, which was founded in 1701, was named after a slave trader named Elihu Yale. His history became the subject of the “Cancel Yale” movement last year, according to Yale Daily News.
“I can see the views on both sides … but where does it stop? ‘Mr. Potato Head’ is now ‘Potato Head.’ Dr. Seuss is on his deathbed,” added Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, referencing recent decisions by Hasbro to market the children’s toy gender-neutral and the announcement Tuesday that six Dr. Seuss children’s books will no longer be published due to imagery deemed racist and insensitive.
“I think we have to think about what’s happening with the ‘cancel culture’ and these pressures that are put on all kinds of things when it seems somewhat bizarre,” Johnson continued.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, also used the time to support the bill while detesting parts of the reason why. He said it was difficult to balance the need for the name change with the desire of the southern Utah community to keep the name.
“I do think this a good compromise that helps us work through the process and make sure we’ve got public input on this. It’s just — I hate ‘cancel culture.’ This is so dumb,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, both said they were happy that the bill allowed for the decision to come from people closer to the community rather than the Legislature itself. It’s why they supported the current bill over the original legislation proposal.
The point of the bill, they said, was to help university leaders and students who requested a school name change based on growing concerns over the name that led to new challenges.
“We’re not trying to ‘cancel’ anything,” Kitchen said. “In fact, putting it back to the community to engage in a process and empower them to move forward with the direction that makes the most sense for the university and the community: it’s the right thing to do.”
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, added that he supported the bill as he saw it as a possible “positive outcome” to a controversial situation.
“This has been a very, very difficult issue that we’ve been trying to face,” Vickers said. “It’s been very divisive, quite frankly, in southern Utah.”
A few senators also urged the possibility of a name that reflects the university’s recent push to be a polytechnic school.
Statements from the university
Dixie State University President Richard Williams said the move is being requested by the university over growing concerns by students and alumni over the name, which is in reference to Utah’s southern Utah region but also has ties to the Confederacy. The school was founded in 1911 and the term “Dixie” was first added to it two years later.
A recent study found that about 1 in 5 recent out-of-state graduates of Dixie State reported that their employer either expressed concerns or likely would express concerns over the school’s name. Various faculty members and Utah’s NAACP chapter have also voiced concerns over the school’s name, especially within the past year.
Dixie State University released an official statement regarding the passing of the bill Wednesday night, reiterating statements previously made by the board.
The statement read in part:
“Dixie State University is deeply appreciative to our state legislators and to the numerous individuals who have dedicated countless hours to House Bill 278S01. In particular, we would like to thank Senators Don Ipson and Mike McKell and Representatives Kelly Miles and Brad Last for their leadership in crafting and supporting this legislation. We acknowledge this has been a difficult yet important process, but we look forward to the opportunity to continue this dialogue. We are eager to work with Governor Cox as this legislation awaits his signature. We are confident that we can identify a name that enables our institution to move forward in the very best interest of our students and community.”
It continued, “Conversations regarding the Dixie State name and identity are not new. Similar discussions have occurred for more than 30 years. The love, respect, and understanding of the local term Dixie was never in question. The recent Cicero study only confirmed the local affinity for our name. Heritage is deeply important to our school and community, and we are profoundly appreciative of the long-lasting support we have received from our partners. Continuous discussions involving the name have not stemmed from the local meaning of Dixie but are due to the unalterable national meaning tied to the Confederate South, Civil War, and slavery.”
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake Branch and Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, penned an op-ed against the bill that was published by the Deseret News earlier Wednesday.
“The name Dixie has racist connotations in conjunction with Dixie State University’s previous traditions and Southern symbolism,” she wrote. “Administrators removed the longtime Rebel mascot in 2005 amid controversy surrounding its Confederate ties. … Dixie State University’s campus statue was of Confederate soldiers, called ‘The Rebels.’ The statue depicted Confederate soldiers and a horse. One of the soldiers carried a Confederate battle flag.”
“For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the school’s mascot was ‘Rodney Rebel,’ a Confederate soldier,” she added. “The Rebels statue was removed from Dixie State University’s campus in 2012 and placed in storage. Later, the statue was returned to the artist.”
However, the name has remained popular with many residents of the southern Utah region and within Utah. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last month found 61% of Utahns surveyed disapproved of changing the university’s name compared to 20% in favor of it. A rally in opposition to the bill was also held on Monday.
Cox addressed the controversy last month, saying that he believed Dixie State University was “going to happen” eventually.
“It just is, whether it happens now or it happens later,” he said, at the time. “A change that reflects the mission of the university, and a change that can signal to the rest of the world what it is that university does.”