Until a few weeks ago, Brody Mikesell, like most of his fellow Dixie students, saw no problem with the name. But he began leafing through old yearbooks, called "The Confederate," after another student pointed out troubling photos, some as late as the early 1990s. White students sing in black face, dress as Confederate soldiers, stage slave auctions and affectionately display the Confederate battle standard.
The clincher for Mikesell was a parade float called "Gone With the Plow." In a photo dating from the late 1960s, a man with his skin painted black pushes a plow while a white student, formally dressed with a top hat, holds what appear to be reins or a whip.
"The fact that this is immortalized in a yearbook, and it's called 'The Confederate' and has the flag, all that together is just a powder keg," Mikesell said. "If that were to get into a national media outlet where people will interpret it out of its context, that's a millstone that will sink the college pretty quickly. The word Dixie is what enabled all that."
Mikesell, who is student body president, is among a growing number on campus who insist on retiring the word attached to the school for a century.
The college risks a mass exodus of donor support if it drops Dixie, according to the school's most prominent benefactor, SkyWest Airlines founder Ralph Atkin. The events depicted in the yearbooks were done "in good humor," and a small vocal group of students is using them to unfairly recast the community as a racist throwback, he said.
"They don't care they are offending the entire alumni base of the college. Their scholarships are provided by that base," said Atkin, a 1965 graduate who co-chairs the school's capital campaign committee with his wife, Cheri.
Dixie baby • The controversy threatens to overshadow what should be a moment of celebration. The school has added many four-year degree programs and hired numerous tenure-track faculty members, laying the foundation for its upgrade to the state's sixth public university.
To develop a new name, administrators created a committee and hired Sorenson Advertising in St. George to gauge community members' preferences. Alternatives to Dixie include references to Red Rock, Zion, St. George and southwestern Utah.
School president Stephen Nadauld likens the process to naming a baby.
"We have been pregnant. The community has wanted this baby for a long time. We are having some labor pains," he said. "It's not the students' baby. It's not the faculty's baby. It's the community's baby."
The chief problem with the Dixie name, critics say, is that it suggests an endorsement of the South's willingness to secede rather than give up slavery, triggering the nation's bloodiest conflict.
Five years ago, as the college considered becoming a satellite of the University of Utah, U. officials said dropping the "baggage" of Dixie would be mandatory.
"'Dixie' has connotations of the Old South, the Confederacy, and racism," Randy Dryer, then the U. trustees' chairman, wrote to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Source of good will • But supporters consider the name a source of local pride and a magnet for support and good will. Dropping the name would erase vital community ties, said sophomore biology major Austin Fackler, president of Dixie's student alumni association.
"The whole place is called Dixie. There are 16 businesses here called Dixie," Fackler said. "Why would alumni donate to a school that they don't believe is the one they went to?"
A large majority of students support the Dixie name, according to dean of students Del Beatty, and Mikesell's public advocacy for a change has frustrated some of them.
On Tuesday, hours after The Tribune interviewed Mikesell, he was called before a trio of administrators who "counseled" him to avoid giving the impression that his views represent those of the student body.
"If Brody is saying students want the name changed that wouldn't be accurate," Nadauld said. "He is in a position where he has to be careful. None of us have a problem with Brody having an opinion on the name. He can shout it from the rooftops. That's not the issue."
At a recent forum, traditionalists roundly booed a compromise suggestion from business professor Shan Gubler: Choosing a name that evokes the region and moves Dixie to a tag line, such as Southwestern University in Utah's Dixie.
Crafting a new identity would also open new sources of donations and grants, according to Gubler, a former chairman of the school's board of trustees.
Racially insensitive student traditions, such as the mock slave auctions and black-face minstrel shows, threaten the school's rebranding efforts, he added.
A 1981 graduate, Gubler once carried the Confederate battle standard on campus, never considering that many regard the flag as a racist symbol. Now, thanks to the yearbook photos, "we have printed ourselves into a corner," Gubler said, because they affirm the perception that Dixie name is a nod to Southern racism.
"We can explain to the world we have no ill intentions to any of Heavenly Father's children, but as soon as someone wants to make an issue out of [the yearbook photos] there is no we could explain our way out of it," Gubler says.
'We are evolving' • As an ex officio member of the trustees, Mikesell will vote on the school's new name. His advocacy has swayed some students, including Matty Jacobsen, editor-in-chief of the campus Dixie Sun newspaper.
Jacobsen is a life-long Dixie fan who keeps a red Rebel megaphone in his office. He reversed his fierce support of keeping Dixie after considering its mixed message.
"If they drop Dixie, they are alienating everyone in St. George who went here. But if you keep it, you alienate people from other places who are offended by the word Dixie," Jacobsen said.
Over the past decade, the school has worked to erase its Confederate identity. Administrators dumped the Rebel nickname for its sports teams, "The Confederate" stopped publishing in the 1990s, and the Confederate battle standard is no longer flown at sporting events. On Thursday, a famous campus statue of Confederate soldiers was moved into storage.
But the community has a long way to go before minorities feel welcome, according to psychology professor Dannelle Larsen-Rife, a Hispanic scholar who moved to St. George from University of California, Davis, in 2009. She and colleague John Jones recently urged state leaders to remove Dixie from the school's name.
"I've heard more racist remarks in my three years here than 40 years in California," Larsen-Rife said. "There are serious problems here that the community won't acknowledge. We were told at that meeting if we don't like the name we could leave."
She and Jones contend the Dixie name hurts recruiting of students and faculty and hampers graduates seeking admission to graduate schools.
Jacobsen, whose parents met while studying theater at Dixie and whose grandfather once chaired the English department, is certain the school's new name will make his degree worth more just by including the word "university." He hopes the rest of the name will look to the future.
"Heritage and region can't go away, but at the same time, we are evolving," Jacobson said. "If you don't evolve, you die out."
What's in a name
Dixie administrators are holding a third and final forum on the school's future name on Jan. 9. They hope to choose the name by the time the state Board of Regents meets on campus Jan. 25, where they are expected to formally recommend Dixie become a university. Officials invite your input at http://www.dixie.edu/namechange/.
An evolving institution
1911: Founded as St. George Stake Academy
1913: Dixie Academy
1916: Dixie Normal College
1923: Dixie Junior College, owned by the LDS Church until 1933 when the State of Utah assumed control.
1970: Dixie College
2000: Dixie State College of Utah
2013: ??? University