St. George • The Utah Board of Regents voted Friday to approve Dixie State College's move to university status, after discussing the challenges posed by keeping the school's controversial name.
Regent France Davis asked the state's higher education oversight board to re-consider keeping the name.
"Like arrows that fly through the air, words do have power," Davis said, pointing to schools located in the American South that have removed references to Dixie.
In responses, the chairman of the Dixie State Board of Trustees offered an apology for the school's past use of Confederate symbols, and the use of blackface on campus.
"I understand the feelings, the hurt and the experiences that you have had by use of these symbols ... let me extend a personal apology," said Steven Caplin.
But for Regent Bob Marquardt, who joined Davis in casting the two nay votes from the 15 voting regents present, it wasn't enough.
In the rest of the country, Dixie is associated with the Confederacy, slavery and violence an association no amount of marketing can overcome, he said.
"I do believe this was a missed opportunity to change the name," he said.
Regent Nolan Karras abstained and Regent Harris Simmons was absent.
Many in the crowd of more than 200 people packed into the meeting room at the new Jeffrey R. Holland Centennial Commons Building seemed to disagree with Marquardt. A chorus of horns heralded the vote, and audience members broke into applause after the vote was taken.
The change to university status must still be approved by the Utah Legislature in the form of HB61, sponsored by Don Ipson, R-St. George. The bill allots an additional $4 million in state funding starting in fiscal year 2014.
Dixie State president Stephen Nadauld spoke in a voice choked with emotion as he said the move to university status would complete a dream of the area's early pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The university would be a "beacon of light in the sky, that sign of secular learning as a companion to religious learning," he said during a presentation to the regents.
The school's name was inspired by those pioneers, including former slave owners and drivers, who were sent south by church leaders in the 1800s to grow cotton. Dixie become a nickname for the region, and in the 1950s the college adopted the Confederate soldier as a mascot. The Confederate flag was frequently displayed at athletic events and on campus, and students occasionally dressed in blackface at spirit events.
Confederate symbols were officially retired by the late 1990s.
That history was at the center of controversy in recent months over whether to change the school's name as it becomes a university.
A study commissioned by Nadauld and completed by a local advertising firm found a large majority of people in and around Dixie supported keeping the word in the name, and the Dixie Board of Trustees last week voted unanimously to retain it. They acknowledged the past activities but did not apologize.
The school has a lot of work ahead to distance itself from the word's connotations, Davis said.
"Certainly it's an issue, the name Dixie," said Davis. But he added, "The trustees want to clean up that image and disavow any continuation of those activities, and that is sufficient for us to move forward for the time being."
Caplin announced a new scholarship, named to honor Davis, for minority students Friday.
The idea was proposed several weeks ago and it came together quickly Friday, following a breakfast meeting before the regents' meeting, Caplin said. Nadauld said Davis is a "good friend" who often comes to Dixie to speak to students.
After a first anonymous donation of $20,000, the fund reached $65,000 by Friday afternoon.
Caplin said he didn't decide to make his comments including the apology until after a morning conversation where Davis explained his objections.
"Since that time, I've been contemplating some of those things ... it was a personal message from me to him," Caplin said.
Dixie's transformation from college to university started four years ago with the addition of new courses, 60 faculty and degree programs. It now offers 17 associate's degrees and 43 bachelor's degrees. That process was completed Friday with the regents' approval of a bachelor's degree in history.
"It is amazing what has been done in such a short amount of time," said Dave Buhler, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education. "It's great to be here today."
Students and cheerleaders Haley Higgins, Dillon Jones and Rhiannon Ostenberg said they're proud Dixie is becoming a university and hope the transition leads to more funding and exposure for their squad.
"I wanted to keep Dixie," said Higgins, 20, of Layton. "The way we look at it is not the way other people are looking at it."
They said they weren't fully aware of the painful history associated with the word until the recent controversy. "I wouldn't say most students know about the history," said Jones, 18, of Layton.
Though acknowledging some people object to the word, the three students said the local history and pride in the name are important.
"We already have built a lot of traditions around it," Higgins said.
"It's been Dixie for 100 years," said Ostenberg, 19, of Clearfield.
But returning junior Amy Harmon, 35, came with a sign saying, "I vote for University of St. George or St. George University."
"I feel like if we want to be a school with national appeal, we need to talk about what the name means to people outside this area, too," she said. "The benefits [of changing the name] outweigh the negatives."
Emotions have been running high on the issue, she said, including among people close to her personally.
"People think that if the name changes it won't be the same place," she said. "To me, it would be the same, just better."