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St. George • With the stroke of a pen, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Saturday put aside dissent over the institution's name and increased its prestige by signing legislation to create Dixie State University.
The Legislature fast-tracked a bill to change the name from Dixie State College and passed it earlier this week. The change took effect with Herbert's signature during a ceremony that doubled as a campus party. As Herbert signed the bill, politicians and Dixie staffers jostled to get one of the pens he was using as a souvenir.
Dixie President Stephen Nadauld choked up as he spoke of early settlers who came to the "forbidding" and "hot" place that is St. George. "It's really an emotional thing to think about how they must [have felt] building this thing."
Dixie is a nickname for the region that traces back to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission in the 1800s that sent pioneers, some of them former slave owners and drivers, south to grow cotton.
Confederate imagery, including the flag, a soldier mascot and occasional student use of blackface, was part of the school tradition for decades before the symbols were formally retired in the late 1990s.
A handful of students and one member of the Utah Board of Regents were concerned with the some of that history and asked Dixie State leaders to seek a new name for the institution. But the community favored keeping the name.
Munir Mahmud, a Dixie business professor, said having "university" in the name will help the school recruit better faculty and gain a better reputation for research. His own work is in economics and finance, and although he's researched or earned degrees at the University of Illinois, Cal State Fullerton and Penn State University, he said St. George has been his favorite place to live with his wife and two children.
"This is a very open community," said Mahmud, who is Muslim and a native of Bangladesh.
A couple hundred people attended Saturday's ceremony at the Dolores Dore Eccles Fine Arts Center. It featured the Dixie marching band, T-shirts and a 5-by-3-foot cake with "Dixie State University" across it.
The final version of the bill renaming Dixie removed a $4 million budget request for the school. The Legislature's higher education appropriations subcommittee is now considering a recommendation to give Dixie State an additional $1.34 million next year.
To qualify to become a university, Dixie State officials spent four years tripling the number of bachelor's degree programs to 42, hiring 60 new faculty members and meeting other benchmarks set by the Utah Board of Regents.