Dixie State name change touches off unexpected standoff between House and Senate Republicans

The bill that would allow Dixie State University to change its name is leading to a tense standoff between House and Senate Republicans in the final days of the 2021 Utah Legislature.

HB278, which easily passed the House last week, is on ice in the Senate as Republican members have decided not to consider the bill, opting instead to wait for a year on the name change.

Last week, the bill appeared to hit a roadblock after Republicans in the Senate decided to freeze the bill and not consider it this year. HB278 easily passed the House last week.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, curtly when asked about the status of the bill. “We’re working with the stakeholders.”

Ipson did not mince words when asked if there was something in the bill he objected to.

“I think they acted too soon and they didn’t give the community a chance to come along with them,” he said. “They were premature in the way they handled it. I think the community is a partner as they have been for a 110 or [120] years. They deserve to be heard on this issue.”

With the Senate GOP digging in their heels over the name change bill, it sets up an impasse with the House with less than two weeks to go until the end of the session. The only compromise suggested thus far was from Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who suggested the campus keep the “Dixie” name while changing the name of the university, but that idea failed to gain any traction.

Students from Dixie State will hold a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday in support of the name change.

As previously reported, the decision by the Senate to sit on the bill caught House leaders off guard last week. On Tuesday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, tweeted out a thread in support of the name change, citing Utah business leaders’ experiences with the negative perception from the Dixie moniker.

“These companies shared first-hand experiences from their businesses and described the negative effects the term ‘Dixie’ has had on their employees, recruitment and the growth potential of southern Utah’s economy,” he wrote.

“I believe now is the right time to make this change. Waiting any longer would do a great disservice to students and employers and unnecessarily prolong the divisive debate within our communities,” added Wilson.

Senate leaders have repeatedly pointed to a recent survey showing Utahns oppose dropping the Dixie name, despite the associations with slavery and the Confederacy.

“This is obviously an issue. I do believe when we hear ‘Dixie,’ I don’t think of anything that is connotative to the Deep South,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “We need to come to the understanding that it means something totally different outside of Utah. We are sensitive to our perception, and there does need to be some work done.”

Adams was careful to lower expectations that this would be resolved before the March 5 adjournment.

“We are trying to find a path forward. But, if for whatever reason we don’t resolve this during this legislative session, I can’t imagine it won’t come up next session,” he said.

“I’m committed to the community and the university to guide this process through the interim, regardless of what happens,” added Ipson.