The Dixie State College Board of Trustees is meeting today to decide what the school should be called when its status changes from a college to a university this year. As part of their decision, the trustees will consider a recent controversy over what some say are racial connotations surrounding the name “Dixie” and whether or not the word should remain in the new name.
Earlier this month when Dixie State College held a public meeting in St. George to unveil a list of possible new names for the school. It was clear where most stood on the issue.The crowd roared when it was announced that according to a survey about 83% of the community wanted "Dixie" to remain in the name.
Several months ago, Dixie State College officials hired a local advertising agency to survey the community and compile a report including possible new names. For most people who live in southern Utah, the term “Dixie” harkens back to their Mormon, cotton-farming- heritage.
But for others like Roi Wilkins it’s a word that represents the checkered past of the American south. Wilkins is a senior at Dixie State College and originally from Los Angeles. He’s also an African American. Wilkins says he’s seen old Dixie State College yearbooks with pictures of students in black face, holding mock slave auctions and dressed in confederate garb. He remains deeply offended by the images.
“It’s racism," Wilkins said. "It's an umbrella for white supremacy. So if they change that name, it’s going to be a start. People are going to be mad obviously, but we can at least start to have some dialogue.”
But St. George resident Tiffany Wilson disagrees. Wilson stood alongside her mother, who's name is also “Dixie” watching Wilkins become surrounded by press as he announced his disapproval outside the auditorium. Wilson believes it's mostly outsiders who want to expel “Dixie” from the name.
“It’s never meant to us anything to do with confederacy or racial issues or slavery," Wilson said. "It truly is a spirit of “Dixie” and it’s something we identify as our community.”
Steve Johnson is a spokesman for DSC, where according to the fall 2012 enrollment statistics, only two percent of the student population identifies as African American.
He says the controversy stems from decision the school made in the 1950's to abandon its mascot, “Flyers,” and adopt confederate-style “Rebels” in its place.
“From there came the adoption of a confederate identity that went along with that new athletic moniker and that identity was fostered over the next 30,40, 50 years," Johnson said.
In the 1990's, college officials began to worry about the reputation of the school, so they changed the mascot to “Red Storm,” and retired the name of their old yearbook “The Confederate”. Last month, they removed from campus a bronze statue of two Civil War soldiers, one carrying the confederate battle flag on horseback. Johnson says the statue was one of the last remaining symbols of that identity.
“If Dixie remains in the name of the institution," Johnson said. "It's going to take an incredible effort to repackage and re-brand that name to return it to what it was originally intended to be 40 or 50 years into its founding."
Shandon Gubler was born and raised in the St. George area and he would like to see the name changed. He's a business professor at Dixie State College and attended the school in the 1970's.
"So I'm completely for Dixie, the place," Gubler said. "I just unfortunately feel that we've got to take some extra measures here because of Dixie the word and the unfortunate printed associations that we allowed to happen.”
As a student, Gubler participated in activities like mock slave auctions. But he now regrets being a part of those activities and acknowledges they would be completely inappropriate today. Gubler said because of those missteps, the name Dixie continues to require an interpretation and an explanation.
"As a University, frankly we don't have time, nor money for that," Gubler said. "Our business is education . Our business is not explanation. Therefore I say, let's move on.”
Another person who recalls that identity well is former NBA All-Star and current Memphis Grizzlies Head Coach Lionel Hollins. He also attended Dixie State College back in the 1970’s.
As one of the only African American students there at the time, he says his experience at Dixie State College was somewhat different from his peers.
“There were some issues within St. George itself and the people that passed through St. George while I was there that I had to deal with," Hollins said. "But my coaches, my teammates and the majority of my classmates respected me and some of them even liked me. I had a good experience there. It’s why I’m able to be in the position I am now.”
He said the confederate references didn't really bother him.
“I grew up in a time where that wasn't abnormal," Hollins said. "It wasn't like that was something that was in my mind so terrible. We had a confederate flag on our warm-up suit. I still have a warm up suit with it on there.”
Hollins added that doesn't necessarily mean he has strong loyalties to the word "Dixie" either.
“If they keep it it shouldn't be an uproar. If they change it, so be it. Just move on and still support the university for what the university stands for. That's more important than what the name of the university is.”
Today when the Dixie State College board of trustees takes a vote, it will take into consideration the report that was researchers presented to the community earlier this month. The names suggested in the report include “Dixie State University,” “University of St. George,” “Utah Dixie University,” and “Utah Dixie State University”.