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Dixie State College leaders are weighing an apology for the school's decades-long use of Confederate regalia and other controversial imagery, as some professors question a study that found overwhelming support for keeping its name as it becomes a university.

"Moving forward, we feel that it will be a necessary part of that process to acknowledge it and if apology is warranted, we can offer that as well," said Dixie State spokesman Steve Johnson. "We've talked to our president [Stephen Nadauld] and our administration ... [and] obviously, it is important to acknowledge that not only were the images and ideas portrayed socially unacceptable in 2013, it should not have been socially unacceptable when it happened."

The region's Dixie nickname 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.

The Confederate flag held a prominent place on campus until it was officially disavowed in 1994, including at college sporting events and in extracurricular clubs, according to a Salt Lake Tribune review of about 30 years of Dixie State yearbooks. Dubbed The Confederate, the yearbooks also show students occasionally dressing in blackface for spirit events and on homecoming parade floats during the 1960s — and in Halloween costumes as recently as the 1990s. Dorms were named for plantations, Johnson said, the school mascot was a Confederate soldier and its colors were red, white and gray.

The colors changed to red, white and blue and the mascot to a red bull in 2009.

Dixie State student Greg Noel said an apology is "long overdue," but it wouldn't necessarily address the underlying problems.

"This isn't the last time this issue will need to be addressed," said Noel, who serves as vice president for clubs and is African-American. "They're just going to put a band-aid over it."

An advertising agency's study, commissioned by Nadauld and released this week, found overwhelming support — 83 percent of those surveyed — for keeping Dixie in the new name. Sorenson Advertising also suggested other possible names, including the University of St. George for a more nationally focused institution, or Utah Dixie University for a "balance" between a national and local focus.

But a group of professors raised questions Friday about the reliability of the agency's results.

"In reality, there's no way for this firm to put out a report not having Dixie in the name and still work in this community," said Dannelle Larsen-Rife, a professor of psychology.

In a letter to the agency, she and a handful of other professors outlined their concerns, especially about the online survey done by the agency. The study was chiefly based on the opinions of the approximately 6,000 people who took the survey, though 250 to 500 were interviewed or participated in focus groups or public meetings.

The professors object that the online survey was taken by a self-selecting group of people, was susceptible to electronic "ballot stuffing," and the results did not include a margin of error.

Erik Sorenson, president of the St. George-based firm paid $28,500 for the project, denied that he felt any pressure to deliver certain results and expressed confidence in the study's statistical significance. Software recorded computers' individual IP addresses, he said, and though researchers didn't limit the number of results from one computer, they reviewed results to ensure one person wasn't entering multiple responses.

"This is a public opinion study, and our job was to report those opinions," he said. "The research doesn't make the decision, it provides the tools to make the decision."

The Dixie State Board of Trustees will vote Jan. 18 on a new name. Its decision must be approved by the Utah State Board of Regents, which is expected to approve university status for the college on Jan. 25, and the Utah Legislature.

Board of Trustees Vice Chair Jon Pike said the board will likely make a statement if members vote to retain the Dixie name. Pike also acknowledged "concerns" about the study.

"Maybe there could have been more or other methods used," he said. "I think some of that came down to how much money do we want to spend doing this ... many people in the community and involved with the college were just ready to proceed with Dixie State without a study." Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Possible new names for Dixie State College

The top three university names for Dixie recommended by Sorenson Advertising:

University of St. George

Utah Dixie University

Utah Dixie State University