Dixie State College keeping its name amid controversy
Controversy • Recent study showed 83% of those with ties to school want to keep name as it becomes a university.
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St. George • Dixie State College looks ready to become Dixie State University after the school's board of trustees voted unanimously Friday to retain the name despite its controversial associations with the Southern Confederacy.

"In the end, the board chose to unite as one body. We unanimously stand behind the Dixie State University name," said Board of Trustees Chairman Steven Caplin, reading from a prepared statement. The crowd of about 150 people broke out in applause at the name announcement. "No one on this board or in this administration is aware of any racial discrimination in our past."

But for Dixie State senior Roi Wilkins, who is African-American, the name and the school's history of using Deep South iconography and students dressing in blackface is associated with oppression.

"I feel like they're still trying to sweep it under the rug," he said.

Trustees did acknowledge the frequent use of the Confederate flag and soldier mascot on campus from the 1950s to the late 1990s, but said people at the school "did not associate these symbols with antipathy toward anyone."

"We neither judge nor condemn those who supported our former team name and mascot," Caplin said. As for the occasional but consistent use of blackface at the school, memorialized in school yearbooks, trustee David Clark said, "We have to be referential of the time period…obviously we wish we'd chosen a different pathway."

The trustees did not, however, apologize.

"We've moved past that…we felt like an acknowledgement was appropriate," Caplin said.

That was a disappointment for St. George community activist Manny Aguilar.

"They should have at least apologized," he said. "Then we could have moved forward."

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP in Salt Lake City, was flabbergasted by the trustees' statement that they were unaware of any racism at the school in the past.

"That is totally ridiculous. Have they not seen all the blackface, the mock slave auction?" she asked. "That's totally false, it's a lie."

The Dixie name choice also was a source of astonishment.

"I was surprised. I thought they might change it to St. George University or University of St. George," Williams said.

"They must not want any people of color to go to that university, especially when [prospective students] see what they've had in the past," she said.

Dixie is a frequently used nickname for St. George region that traces to the 1800s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent groups of pioneers, including former slave owners and drivers, south to grow cotton.

A public opinion study done by a St. George advertising firm released last week found an overwhelming majority of people connected to the school, 83 percent, supported keeping the name. The governments of several towns and cities around the college also passed formal resolutions supporting keeping Dixie in the school's name — though the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came out against it.

Board member Brody Mikesell, the college's student body president, said he voted for the name in spite of his outspoken personal opposition.

"My obligation is to unify the students under one banner," he said, tears in his eyes. But "it would be inappropriate not to recognize the 17 percent…I don't want them to feel we are turning our backs on them."

The board also approved a resolution supporting the school's move to university status, the culmination of a "monumental" four-year effort to add more faculty, classes and degree programs. As the student body has grown by nearly 60 percent over the last five years, the portion of minority students also increased from 8 percent to 14 percent last year, according to Dixie numbers.

"My great-grandparents came down here with very little and lost what they brought more than once," said trustee Julie Beck, holding back emotion. In becoming a university, "I see us today reaping the blessing of the price they paid."

The Utah Board of Regents must now approve Dixie's move to university status in a meeting scheduled for Jan. 25.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst