Quantcast

Elected officials wade into controversial 'Dixie' debate

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 10:15 p.m. MDT

The Dixie State College podium at the May 6, 2011, graduation exercises at Dixie State College of Utah. (Jason Swensen, Deseret News) The Dixie State College podium at the May 6, 2011, graduation exercises at Dixie State College of Utah. (Jason Swensen, Deseret News)

ST. GEORGE — With only weeks left before Dixie State College is expected to receive a new name and university status, elected officials in Washington County entered the fray Thursday with a strong vote in favor of keeping the "Dixie" in Utah's southwest region.

"The elected legislative bodies of the following political subdivisions located within Washington County, Utah respectfully request that the term 'Dixie' continue to be a prominent part of the new name for Dixie State College of Utah," reads a resolution passed by the Washington County Commission and the St. George City Council.

While "Dixie" stems from a traditional nickname for Washington County and the southwest region of Utah, many feel the word's historical connection to racism, slavery and the Confederate south would be misinterpreted in the out-of-state recruitment and research efforts inherent with university status.

But "Dixie" supporters, including the elected leaders of Washington County and St. George, say the word refers to the pioneering spirit of early settlers and should be preserved out of respect to their hard work and sacrifice to develop the region. 

"The continued use of 'Dixie' in the new name will demonstrate the importance of community history and the university's critical, long-standing ties with the many local residents who have generously supported and worked to develop it throughout its own history," the resolution states.

St. George City Councilman Jimmie Hughes said the resolution received unanimous support from the City Council. He said he doesn't understand why innocuous terms need to be avoided because of a potential connection to the Confederacy and compared the "Dixie" debate to a hypothetical scenario where southern Utah is referred to as "lower Utah" to avoid misinterpretation.

"I feel bad that people take offense from something that's not meant to offend," he said. "We don't have to get rid of anything that will remind us of the past."

The decision of what to name the new university ultimately falls on the Utah Board of Regents. Dixie's board of trustees will make a recommendation, after which the regents are expected to vote on both university status and a new name during their Jan. 25 meeting in St. George, according to Pamela Silberman, communications director for the Utah System of Higher Education.

The matter will then go before the Utah Legislature for final approval.

Silberman said Dixie has gone to great lengths to be transparent during its search for a new name and the regents will likely respect the trustees' decision.

"They've done a really great job at including the public in the process," she said. "It would be pretty unlikely that the regents would go against that recommendation."

In anticipation of the school receiving university status, Dixie officials partnered with a research firm to conduct an online survey asking the public for input in choosing a name for the new school. The survey was open to anyone and asked participants to rate words on whether they should be included in the new university's name. Among those words were "Dixie," "St. George," "Southwestern," "Washington" and "Utah."

The results of the survey will be presented at a public meeting Jan. 9 at the Avenna Center Cox Auditorium on Dixie's campus.

A statue of two confederate soldiers was removed in November from the area of the Avenna Center. It was the latest action by college officials to distance the institution from ties to the deep South, which included the removal of confederate flag imagery from campus and changing the school mascot from the "Rebels" to the "Red Storm."

Dixie State College spokesman Steve Johnson said he had not received exact numbers, but estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals have participated in the survey. He said he didn't want to speculate on potential ill-will between the school and the local government should "Dixie" not make the cut, but emphasized his appreciation that the two political bodies had voiced their opinion.

"It's been great to see the participation, not only of elected officials but everyone in this process," he said. "We value every opinion that has been voiced."

Hughes said it would be a loss to abandon "Dixie" but added that regardless of what name is chosen, he and his colleagues will continue to work with and support the school. 

"I don't think there would be any bad blood," he said. "I think we would move on."

Silberman said that although possible, it is highly unlikely Dixie will not receive university status. The college has been working for some time to meet requirements set forward by the regents, she said.

"I think we would know that at this point," she said. "I assume all of that is in line."

Since the school's founding in 1910, it has transitioned through six different names. Of those, only the first, St. George Stake Academy, does not include the word "Dixie."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company