SALT LAKE CITY — After years of preparation and months of controversial debate over its name, a bill to make Dixie State College the state's newest university is headed to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk for his signature.
On Wednesday, both the House and Senate passed HB61, which grants official university status to the St. George school and changes its name to Dixie State University.
"This is a great day in the lives of the people of Utah to be able to make this great institution a university and be able to serve the students of southern Utah and throughout the world," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said.
During House debate, Ipson began his presentation of the bill by sharing a newspaper clipping from Feb. 13, 1892. In the news article, his great-grandfather, William Sargent, then a member of the territorial Legislature, was described as the "wild man from Garfield" for his lone vote in opposition to changing the name of the University of Deseret to the University of Utah.
The clipping described Sargent's protestations as so loud that spectators outside the chamber came inside out of fear that a fight had broken out.
Ipson spoke emotionally about the honor he felt introducing a similar bill to change the name of a Utah university exactly 121 years to the day after his ancestor's day of fame.
"Some have said, and I don't know where they get the idea from, that the nut didn't fall far from the tree," Ipson said. "I think that's a pretty incredible heritage that I have the great privilege to serve in this body in his footsteps."
The concept of respecting heritage has frequently been brought up in discussion of granting university status to Dixie. Ipson described the bill as "101 years in the making" and spoke of the economic and developmental boon he predicts a university will provide to the southwest portion of the state.
But the heritage of the school's "Dixie" name has also been the most divisive aspect of the school's transition. Over the past several months, many have argued that the upcoming change presents an opportunity to abandon the word, which to many carries a negative connotation associated with racism and slavery.
Others, however, felt that preserving "Dixie" was necessary to respect the history and legacy of Utah's southwest region nicknamed Dixie, as well as the early pioneers who sacrificed to settle and develop the area.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate but drew six votes in opposition in the House, all from Salt Lake County Democrats. While not all those who voted against the bill stood to explain their vote, those who did expressed support for university status but opposition to the continued use of "Dixie" in the school's name.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, applauded the efforts of school leaders to distance Dixie from its anecdotal ties to the Deep South — such as changing the school's mascot from "Rebels" to "Red Storm" and removing confederate imagery from campus — but said she would be unable to vote for the bill.
"There are periods in our history that are still very painful for members of our community," Romero said. "We need to recognize and respect that."
Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, also spoke against the bill. He said he fully supports the college becoming a university but could not vote for the bill out of sympathy for those who find the use of the word "Dixie" offensive.
"I think that when we're talking about the future and as our population grows and changes, I think it's important to consider the connotation that certain names have," Wheatley said.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said it was unfortunate that any controversy had been generated by the bill because it diminishes the sense of pride Utahns should be feeling about adding a new university to the Utah System of Higher Education.
Greene said the name was far removed from the notion of slavery and added that by voting for the bill, lawmakers were not adding "Dixie" to the name but merely preserving something that had been in place and loved for decades.
"The term Dixie, the history of Dixie, whether in this state or in the Old South is so much more than that scourge on our nation's history," he said. "There's so much pride and heritage that goes along with that, and those are the things we should be focusing on."
Herbert will sign the bill at 9 a.m. Saturday on the Dixie State campus, school officials said. The terms of the bill, including the change of the institution's name, will take effect immediately following his signature.
"This is great news for the people of southern Utah, our students and higher education," Herbert said in a prepared statement. "The more opportunities we provide for people to advance their education, the more likely we will be to reach our essential goal — that 66 percent of Utah's working-age adults will have a degree or postsecondary certificate by the year 2020."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company