SALT LAKE CITY — After hours of public comment and testimony, the Utah State Legislature's House Education Committee voted to support a bill that would remove the name "Dixie" from "Dixie State University."
"This decision to change the name is in the best interests our students, the state of Utah and Dixie State University," said Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, who sponsored House Bill 278.
The bill passed out of committee on a 12-2 vote late Wednesday.
"The fact that it’s removing the name 'Dixie' and the cancel culture gives me great pause," said Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, who voted against the name change.
HB278 would begin a process to rename the university. Dixie State's Board of Trustees, student body council, the Utah State Board of Higher Education and others have all voted to support a name change. They argue the term "Dixie," with its ties to the Civil War-era Confederacy have hindered growth as people have to explain that southern Utah's regional use of the name is different.
"We love the heritage of our community. We love celebrating the regional definition of Dixie. We won’t change that. This is about saving the future of our graduates," said Dixie State University President Richard Williams.
Williams acknowledged that decades ago, the school used to fly the Confederate flag and its mascot was "the Rebel." In 2012, FOX 13 reported on yearbooks that showed students in blackface. The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have both called for the school's name to change.
But supporters of the name "Dixie" say it has connotations with Latter-day Saint Pioneers who settled in southwestern Utah, where the climate is warmer.
Student body President Penny Mills told the committee that students can't wear college gear outside Utah without having to explain the nuances of the name. She said it is impacting the ability to get a job after graduation.
"Employers are uncomfortable with the name," Mills said. "My stance is that it needs to change."
Dozens of people spoke for and against the bill, but the majority signaled their support in favor of a name change. But opponents said the community opposed the name change and alumni would pull funding.
In an effort to offer an olive branch to opponents, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, introduced an amendment to allow the campus itself to be called the "Dixie campus." It means some signage wouldn't change, even though the name of the university would.
"In St. George, where we love and care about the Dixie name, we will still be able to have the Dixie name on campus," he said.
Rep. Miles told FOX 13 after the committee vote that he believed he had the votes to pass it through the full House of Representatives. The Senate could be closer.
"It’s a very polarizing issue but we felt really good about the outcome," he said.