Businesses, graduates share varying views on Dixie State University name change

In this file photo, representatives from Dixie State University and Intermountain Healthcare celebrate the unveiling of "Blaze the Bison" at what was then Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on July 29. | Photo courtesy Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With the debate continuing locally about a recommendation by both Dixie State University and the Utah Board of Higher Education to abandon the name of the university, students, graduates and local businesses are at odds over whether the name change will be a benefit or a disservice to the community.

Dixie State University campus, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

Although the name has significant meaning locally, some graduates and business leaders say the name is hard for outsiders to understand, and an institutional name change would benefit students and the St. George community. Others say the name represents the deep pride locals have for the area, and changing the name unnecessarily erases history.

Graduates: ‘I would feel really uncomfortable having ‘Dixie’ on my resume’

James Kener, Dixie State’s regional admissions counselor for Northern Utah, is tasked with recruiting prospective students across the region for the university he once attended. After graduating from Dixie State in 2017, where he served as president of the X Club and won the Dixie Spirit Award, Kener went to law school at Michigan State University and then returned to Utah. Kener has the “Dixie Spirit,” he said, but he’s seen how the rest of the world reacts to the name and has grown tired of explaining the nuances. 

“(I’m) a guy who’s really proud of his undergraduate institution and you get to the point where you feel ashamed,” Kener told St. George News. “If you’re from Southern Utah and you know Dixie, it’s hard to wrap your head around somebody else’s experience. I agree it’s harmless in that world but outside of Southern Utah, it resonates negatively with people.”

In his current role, Kener said he gets a lot of questions from high school students and other schools at college fairs about the name “Dixie,” and he has to spend time explaining where the term comes from instead of addressing the institution’s merits. During recruiting campaigns, he’s gotten messages from parents who insist they won’t spend a cent on tuition at a school with “Dixie” in its name. The name is a distraction from Dixie State’s positive qualities, Kener said. 

“I have the Dixie spirit and the biggest thing I hear is, ‘Well if you really had the Dixie spirit, you’d defend it,’ and I have,” Kener said. “There’s almost nothing you can say. The meaning of the word ‘Dixie’ abroad is something that is really hurtful and really impactful. No matter how many opportunities I have, I still get bad comments, bad looks. I can’t explain away the connotations.” 

Another graduate who asked to be referred to as Ellyse told St. George News she’s had similar experiences. Ellyse graduated from Dixie State with a degree in elementary education in 2015 and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband where she is currently a stay-at-home mom. Growing up in Southern Utah, Ellyse said she was proud of the name “Dixie” and never saw the point in changing the name. 

“If I wanted to go back to work I would feel really uncomfortable having ‘Dixie’ on my resume,” she said. “I love the pioneer heritage. I don’t think that should change. I don’t think everything should be rid of, but for students living out of state, I think it’s doing them a disservice by not changing the name.”

Ellyse and Kener both said that every time someone from outside of Southern Utah asks where they went to college, they don’t understand what Utah has to do with “Dixie,” and some are offended by the connotations. Trying to explain that “Utah’s Dixie” has to do with pioneer heritage has grown tiring, Ellyse and Kener said.

Protesters against Dixie State University’s name change gather on campus in St. George, Utah, Jan. 11, 2021 | Photo by Megan Webber, St. George News.

But not all alumni share that viewpoint. On Jan. 11, students and community members marched across campus to protest the name change. Kanton Vause, a former Dixie State student who organized the event, told St. George News that Dixie represents a welcoming, fun place to be and that students are proud of that.

“We want people to understand that we’re passionate about the name,” he said. “It represents our identity and our culture and our history. We’re proud of it, we love it, and we want other people to know that we’re not looking for a fight; We just want to be able to practice and live and celebrate what we are and who we are.”

Businesses: ‘It’s going to put pressure on small businesses to rebrand’

Businesses that started in Southern Utah and now have a regional or national reach have also experienced issues with the name. Intermountain Healthcare has partnered with Dixie State over the past four years to connect students with physician mentors across the country and 24 graduates have been accepted to medical school programs because of the partnership. But the name ‘Dixie’ is not always positively received by participating physicians. 

Gary Stone, an Intermountain Healthcare executive director, told St. George News via email that the name is confusing at best and offensive at worst. He described a recruiting call with a physician from Florida who was confused when Stone said he was calling from St. George, Utah. The physician associated the name “Dixie” with Alabama or Mississippi and was surprised that there was a “Dixie” in Utah. 

The term may be meaningful from a nostalgic perspective, but it is very confusing and unhelpful from a branding perspective,” Stone said. “It doesn’t make sense and breaks the rules of branding’s best practices.”

When Dixie Regional Medical Center changed its name to St. George Regional Hospital, it felt great, Stone said.

“St. George” has a much more positive marketing impact than “Dixie” because the city is known for its climate, outdoor lifestyle and proximity to national parks, he said. 

If Utah insists on maintaining the name, our national partners will remain confused by our unwillingness to denounce the negative connotations associated with the word ‘Dixie,’” Stone said. “To many, ‘Dixie’ is connected to the confederacy, racism and rebellion against the country. Our university must not be associated with such things in any way … The future of local students interested in science and medicine is much brighter with a strong name and brand based on modern and scientifically proven branding principles. We owe that to them.”

The new Vasion building on Tech Ridge, St. George, Utah, January 2021 | Photo courtesy of Vasion, St. George News

Brittany Fay, corporate marketing director of Vasion, previously known as PrinterLogic, told St. George News via email that the company takes pride in being headquartered on Tech Ridge and in the unique history of Southern Utah, but outside of Utah, the narrative is different. 

“The name ‘Dixie’ has a different context outside of Utah that the rest of the world acknowledges creates discomfort and confusion,” Fay said. “The spirit of this region is what impacts our company. We acknowledge where the name is derived from, and from a historic perspective, we do not agree with that ideology.”

Vasion has been located in St. George for the past 20 years and has hired numerous interns and graduates from Dixie State because of the university’s high-quality programs and well-prepared students, Fay said. The company also hires employees from around the world and many new hires raise questions about the word “Dixie” when they relocate to St. George.

“We believe the spirit of southern Utah is the people and a culture rich with innovation, commitment, and drive. Regardless of the University’s decision to change its name, that spirit will always persist, which is why our global headquarters will continue to be in St. George.”

“We see the University taking the steps necessary to become a regional and global powerhouse polytechnic school that Tech companies all over the country will recruit world-class talent from,” Fay said. 

For small businesses like Dixie Gun and Fish, the possibility of the university changing its name adds pressure for business owners to do the same. Owner Jake Erickson told St. George News that he believes changing his business’s name would be “cancel culture.” Having lived in St. George since he was 12 years old, “Dixie” has become something he’s very proud of.

“If we make a change, it’s going to put pressure on us, especially small businesses, to rebrand. For us, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “Dixie has always meant a whole lot to the locals. It’s something of pride.”

As the oldest firearm store in Southern Utah, Dixie Gun and Fish has become a staple of St. George, representing the outdoor lifestyle the area is known for in addition to the region’s heritage. When customers ask about the meaning of the name “Dixie,” Erickson said he explains that he’s very prideful of the term.

“I strongly believe the term is not as derogatory as the perception,” Erickson said. 

Community voices: ‘You have to look at heritage’

When the university announced that it was recommending a name change to the state, Hurricane City Councilwoman Nanette Billings told St. George News that she wrote to state legislators and encouraged them to consider what “Dixie” means from a local perspective. 

View of the Dixie Rock or Sugarloaf, St. George, Utah, March 26, 2020 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

“The word ‘Dixie,’ when you’re educated, it means one thing,” she said. “It has an underlying theme. You have to look at heritage as well. Here, it was not ever meant to cause a separation.”

In her letter, she said “Dixie” represents a people who are educated and united in faith and the word was never meant to be discriminatory. She also said that despite the name, enrollment at Dixie State has never been higher and students continue to attend because they love the area. 

In October 2020, Dixie State announced in a letter that enrollment has increased by more than 40% in the last five years. The university welcomed 3,210 new students last semester including freshmen and transfer students, and this semester there are 12,043 students enrolled, a 7.6% increase from last year. 

While enrollment at Dixie State was higher last fall than it has ever been, Dixie State Director of Public Relations Jyl Hall said the explosive recent growth shouldn’t be taken for granted. Enrollment at institutions nationwide will drop in the coming years due to a decrease in the age group’s population, and all universities are working to eliminate any competitive disadvantages in preparation for what they foresee as a highly competitive recruiting environment.

“To maintain the growth DSU has accomplished, it is important that the institution is forward-thinking,” Hall said.

The proposed name change has sparked debate across the community as well. In response to a St. George News Facebook post asking for public input, more than 60 community members shared a variety of perspectives. 

Ivins resident Corrine Longmore said, “I don’t think anything in history should be changed. We need to learn from it, not try to erase it.”

The state legislature is now responsible for making the final decision on whether or not to change the university’s name, as previously reported by St. George News. If they vote to change the name, the university will calculate any rebranding costs and will include the community in deciding what the new name will be.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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