ST. GEORGE — In the early morning darkness Wednesday, Dixie State University students met at the Gardner Center Ballroom to get tested for COVID-19 before boarding a charter bus bound for Salt Lake City and the state Capitol building.
There, the students plan to hold a peaceful rally as well as speak with Utah senators to voice their support for HB 278, the bill that would remove “Dixie” from the university’s name.
The trip comes on the heels of reports that the bill was effectively killed in a closed-door caucus meeting of Republican senators.
A statement from university officials released Monday said that the university was encouraged that the “Utah Senate is working on HB 278, Name Change Process for Dixie State University. The University is prepared to work with senators to support our students and prepare our alumni for rewarding careers all while honoring the Southern Utah heritage.”
The DSU Board of Trustees voted unanimously in December to recommend the name change, as did the Utah Board of Higher Education, spurring the creation of HB 278. The bill received a veto-proof majority vote as it moved through the House earlier in February.
The DSU statement went on to say the following:
This recommendation has been unanimously supported by the DSU Student Association Executive Council, University Council, President’s Cabinet, Board of Trustees, the Utah Board of Higher Education, each college and university president from the Utah System of Higher Education System, and a veto-proof majority of the Utah House of Representatives. Additionally, Governor Cox publicly shared his support for this bill.
To that end, the Dixie State University Student Association organized the trip to Salt Lake City in order to speak with senators and express their desire for the bill to be heard by the Senate.
“We are headed up to the capitol building to rally for the name change and to hopefully have the bill heard on the floor of the senate,” Cory O’Bray told St. George News on Wednesday morning before boarding the bus.
O’Bray is the vice president of marketing for the student association.
While the trip was organized by the student association, the opportunity to travel to the Capitol was opened to all students, O’Bray said, adding that they had students representing nearly every campus organization as well as the general student body.
O’Bray said he feels as if an institutional name change would be a benefit to all of the university’s students.
“We feel as though it would be an injustice to the students if the bill wasn’t heard on the floor,” he said.
Student association Vice President of Service Katy Johnson agreed with O’Bray and said the decision by some senators to not allow the bill to be heard was upsetting, particularly as she felt that the student voice was underrepresented.
“We feel like a lot of people have been putting a lot of work into this bill,” Johnson said. “To see it killed before it goes to the Senate floor is pretty upsetting to us.”
While the bill has the support of DSU student leadership as well as Utah higher education leadership, many Southern Utah residents do not support the name change, and though they feel students are within in their First Amendment rights to rally in support of the bill, they don’t believe students are going about it the right way.
A press release sent to St. George News from the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition, a group that is opposed to the name change, in part said the following regarding the student trip:
DSUHC considers this effort to be another desperate move on the part of the University leadership which is characteristically consistent with its past behavior on this matter. It is ill–conceived, not carefully thought out, and in our view blatantly offensive to the university community, to Utah’s Dixie as especially to tax payers and parents/grandparents, many of whom are paying tuition for their children to attend DSU. While we do not object in any respect students exercising their rights to protest, we do object to student fees, tuitions, legislative appropriations, donor funds or dollars from any university sources or accounts being used to fund a trip to lobby the legislature on one side of the issue. Students also should not be encouraged to leave classes and teachers should not be encouraged to excuse them.
O’Bray confirmed that the trip is being funded through student fees.
“Each semester there is a budget that is allotted for the student body president to use for things that will benefit the students or to take action on their campus initiatives,” he said. “Penny Mills (DSU student body president), as well as a couple of other DSUSA executive council members decided that this felt crucial enough to fund using said budget.”
DSU Student Association Chief of Staff Abigail Scherzinger said she believes it is crucial to have senators hear from the students on the bill she said would work for the benefit of current, former and future students of the university.
“We want the senators and the legislators to see that we do want our voices heard,” Scherzinger said.
Neither Johnson nor Scherzinger had specific names in mind to replace “Dixie” but both said they hope it would be something that is inclusive to all students, one that would not hurt any student’s potential for future jobs or continuing education and that would still be indicative of where the school is located.
Update Feb. 24, 12:30 p.m. As of Wednesday morning, the bill is now expected to be heard in a Senate committee before the Legislature ends early next month.
When the students met with lawmakers, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said he was impressed with the way they conducted themselves.
“They treated us with respect,” Ipson said. “I commend them and the university for the very dignified way that they presented themselves.”
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Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
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