ST. GEORGE — As student body president of Dixie State University, Penny Mills says she loves everything about the rapidly growing public institution.
But she notices that when she visits her home in Utah County, she rarely sees students wearing apparel emblazoned with the university’s logos.
“I can count on one hand the times that I’ve seen it out of St. George. … As a student body president, I want everyone to know the university that I go to. I want everyone to be proud of the university because of how proud I am of it. But that’s not the case. Students don’t do that. The alumni don’t wear the apparel. That is not good for a brand,” Mills said.
Mills was part of a panel discussion on a proposed name change for the university hosted Thursday by Dixie State University’s Institute of Politics & Public Affairs.
Both the university’s trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education voted recently to support changing the university’s name. A name change would require a statutory change approved by the Utah Legislature.
Beyond issues with the brand, some panelists addressed the name’s impacts on students, faculty and the university.
Jordan Sharp, DSU’s vice president of marketing and communication, said the name is becoming an impediment to recruiting out-of-state students.
“Forty percent of our recruiting area is outside of the state. Twenty percent in Utah are saying, ‘I’m probably not going to come there because of that name,’” Sharp said. “Every 1% that we don’t get or lose is about $350,000 to the institution.”
Beyond that, a recent study conducted by the Cicero Group found that 22% of recent graduates reported that while looking for work outside of Utah, an employer expressed concern about the term Dixie on their resumes.
William Christensen, DSU business management professor and faculty senate president, said faculty members are “on the front lines of Dixie versus the world.”
When professors go to conferences or attempt to collaborate with academics elsewhere, “we feel the brunt of that. We’re the ones that get bloodied and beat up because of the name.”
He recounted the experience of one colleague: “When I tell my peers and colleagues the name of the university where I work, they openly question the validity and integrity of an institution that still carries such a name.”
But others on the panel questioned why the university should change its name, particularly when it is overwhelmingly supported in the region and by alumni and the university is transitioning to a polytechnic university.
Tim Anderson, a local attorney, who in 1991 wrote a column for the St. George Spectrum titled “Time to bury the Confederate flag,” said the university’s name “is what you make of it.”
Confederate imagery was removed from the campus several years ago, including a statue titled The Rebels, which depicted a horse and Confederate soldier and a Confederate battle flag.
“We have cleaned off the soil that should never have been attached to the name Dixie State College, and we honor the name in the future as was honored in the past. It will give our great educational institution a unique and enviable brand. That’s what we have,” he said.
Another local attorney, Troy Blanchard, said the recent research by the Cicero Group, when compared to a survey on the name conducted in 2013, suggests growing local support for the name.
Blanchard, who earned degrees from the University of Iowa and BYU, said if his alma maters changed their names, “it would leave me as an orphan. That’s what I would feel like. I would be, ‘Well it’s not where I went to school anymore.’”
For alumni of Dixie State or Dixie College, “that’s their college. They associate with the name. It’s something that means so much to them. When you change it and abandon it and insinuate that history was wrong and that they were racist back then, and you don’t instead try and correct the things moving forward with the name, they feel abandoned and they’re going to have a tendency to walk away.”
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.
There has been growing pressure to rename the university, with an online petition and a vote by the university’s faculty senate following the national reckoning on social justice sparked by the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minnesota. The NAACP has also urged a change.
However, there was also an online petition to preserve the name.
On Jan. 1, Dixie Regional Medical Center was renamed Intermountain St. George Hospital. The hospital had some version of Dixie in its name since 1952.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, has said the university’s name change will be one the most controversial issues lawmakers will tackle during the 2021 session.
“For those of us that grew up in Utah, it’s not a name I ever associated with the racial concerns and challenges that many others do. But the truth is there is a little bit of storied past with that name. … The name Dixie means something different to people outside of Utah than it does to those of us that grew up here. And if Dixie (State University) wants to be a regional university, its name needs to be a name that reflects the needs of the region,” he said.
Wilson said he understands the sensitivity of the issue. “But I also think at some point we just have to make the decisions and move on. And I think now is probably a good time to make that decision,” Wilson said.