DSU's Name Change: It's About Time!

December 16th, 2020

Disclaimer: the opinions below are my own thoughts, and I write them as an individual with an opinion, not as a representative of any institution.

As an alumna and current employee of DSU, I was elated to learn that my university has finally decided to drop the word "Dixie" from its name. President Williams sent an e-mail announcing this change to faculty and staff on Monday evening. I read the e-mail twice before texting my friends and family the good news, and fellow alumni texted back hurriedly with links to the first few local news articles covering the story.

This name change has taken too long. "Dixie" has been a problem for me personally since I first moved to St. George, Utah, in 2004, but I know that others have struggled against the name and its racist connotations much, much longer.

Still, when it comes to the extremely conflicted relationship I have with my undergrad institution and current employer due to its detestable name, I could go on all day.

... And in August, I did!

This year, DSU finally decided that opposition to the name had grown too large to ignore, so they hired Cicero Group to consult on the issue. It wasn't the first time the university had gone through these types of motions, so I was a bit skeptical when I received the following invitation for feedback on the morning of August 17th:

Dear Faculty,

If you have actual / first-hand experiences & stories regarding a negative or positive impact related to the name of our institution “Dixie,” please send them to me. I will collect them and forward them to the consultants who will be studying the impact.

I knew I had to say something, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit nervous about doing it.

Southern Utah is a deeply religious and conservative community, and I am neither of those things (though I did give the former the ol' college try). I had spoken out on issues big and small before, and I had always felt significant backlash. Still, this wasn't about me, so I knew I still needed to do my part. As an extremely pasty person, I don't want to center myself; I only bring up my tiny role in all of this because I want to encourage you and yours to speak out against discrimination and hurtful indifference to suffering whenever you encounter these things.

Anyway, I replied with my thoughts later that evening, and I'd like to share what I wrote with you. Keep in mind that I work at this institution, so I needed to keep my tone fairly even and professional. I also didn't know for sure how the person extending the invite personally felt about the issue, and I wanted to make sure my perspective would be shared with the consulting firm.

Rather than wax poetic and speak powerfully about racial equality on behalf of people I couldn't possibly claim to represent, I kept things very focused on how DSU's name had directly impacted my own career so far. In other words: I understand that this is a bunch of yt people problems, and obviously the negative impact that "Dixie" has had on Black people and other people of color greatly outweighs whatever grief it has caused me (an extremely pasty person).

Enough disclaimers. Here is the response:


I personally have had a myriad of negative experiences related to the name of this institution and the usage of the word "Dixie" throughout St. George, Utah. I attended Dixie Middle, Dixie High, and Dixie State, so I've got tons of stories, but I'll limit myself to a few regarding DSU for the sake of specificity and what will likely be a failed attempt at brevity.

My masters is from the University of Utah, and I attended that institution from the Fall of 2013 until the Summer of 2015. Three of my fellow percussionist grad students were from Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee respectively. These three often remarked (to me and to others) that it was very odd that out of the four of us, I was the one who had graduated from an institution called "Dixie." The common explanations for this name - that settlers grew cotton here, that St. George is in the southern part of the state and thus "Utah's Dixie," that some settlers were from the South themselves - these did little to convince actual Southerners of the name's legitimacy.

As soon as these peers learned of Dixie's well-documented affinity for the Confederacy (see the name of the yearbook, the black face parties, the slave auctions, the school flag, the pairing of the name "Dixie" with the mascot of "Rebels," the community upset over removal of a Confederate soldier statue), they immediately concluded that the institution has a racist past which it apparently refuses to denounce or rectify. That is the conclusion I reached when I moved to St. George, Utah, in 2004 as well, so I make no attempt to defend the name of the institution when it is criticized.

As a part time faculty member, I supplement my income by working multiple jobs (which means sending resumes and taking interviews). As a musician, I am often asked to send my bio for inclusion in programs and promotional materials. Whenever I send my information to an institution outside of Utah, I constantly have to answer for and explain the name "Dixie" (as it appears in multiple places on my resume and in my bio). This leads to a now routine conversation:

First there is confusion about where the school is located. Then there are multiple questions about why it was given this name and why people here are so attached to the name when they are not part of the South. Then the person gives me their opinion of whether or not the name is appropriate (not one of these interviewers or colleagues has ever concluded that the name is acceptable). Finally, we agree that the name is odd, and I do my best to explain that I am committed to racial equality and promoting diversity.

The process I described above happens every single time someone learns that I attended/teach at Dixie State University. I often think about how nice it must be not to have to spend part of every job interview explaining the name of your undergrad program/current employer.

For another example, please consider that I teach Survey of Jazz History at DSU. I have taught this course over 15 times. It is standard practice in similar courses across the nation to discuss the label of "Dixieland" and why many Black musicians prefer not to use that name for New Orleans Jazz. Thus, it is virtually impossible to talk about early jazz music - or really any early American popular music - without running headfirst into the "Dixie" conversation. To leave this musical material and its historical context out would be a disservice to my students. So I include it, and they learn about the label and criticisms of "Dixie." I say nothing about our institution during this discussion unless a student asks about it directly - naturally, someone always does.

When I was a student of DSU (2009-2013), I advocated for a name change when completing surveys on the topic, and I felt extremely disappointed that my university cared so little my opinion and those who shared it. We dropped "Rebels," and there was no name change. We became the "Red Storm," and "Dixie State University," and locals once again refused to drop "Dixie." We became the Trailblazers, and still "Dixie" persists.

I have consistently spoken out against the name despite caring very much for the institution, and in response, I have heard time and time again: "If you don't like it, leave." As if over a decade spent in St. George and all of the time, money, and effort I've invested into this university mean nothing. I have never hung up my diploma. My 2013 Dixie award trophy sits in a box, and its title never made it onto my resume. I no longer use the full name of the university on my resume at all (except for a tiny footnote explaining why I now abbreviate it). Same for my website. I'd love to be able to promote this institution, but I can't do it in good faith, so I just don't.

In conclusion, it is my belief that while much of the community takes a huge amount of pride in the name "Dixie," anyone who actually spends a significant amount of time outside of the state - especially in a professional capacity - can tell you that the name is at best inconvenient and annoying to explain. At worst, it is inexcusable and upsetting to those who learn of it and stumble upon its Confederate ties. I know I am not the only one who feels this way; my twin sister shares similar experiences in her field (theater), and many of our former classmates do, too.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my comments. I know this message is quite long, but it is very important that DSU step into the 21st century name-wise. This really is a great place to work and to study, but some people will never find that out due to a name with negative racial connotations that simply cannot be ignored or excused any longer. Widespread, established support from the local community does not negate the growing number of people who disapprove of the name. When it is so easy to come up with a name that offends virtually no one, it is very troubling that the university would so vehemently insist on keeping "Dixie."


Amanda Lee Morrill

I know now that many of my colleagues expressed similar concerns. They probably felt as nervous and alienated as I did (or maybe they're way more badass than I am and felt only satisfaction). I'm mad that DSU didn't listen before, but I'm grateful the name is going to change now. It would be naive to think that the name change has nothing to do with money or notoriety, but I'm still grateful to the the people who spoke out agains the racist vestige of treason that is the name "Dixie."

To any locals who profess that "Dixie" means something wholesome and beautiful to them: I only ask that you realize how meaningless this argument becomes the second you try to leave Utah (even temporarily). If the spirit behind the name is as pure as you claim, then that rose by any other name should smell as sweet.

To any actual southerners who have favorable opinions of the name: ... I don't even know what to say to you other than this university is in Utah. That fact renders the name totally ridiculous. You've never claimed Utah as part of the South, and I don't think anyone is actually interested in starting now. Let's not and say we didn't.

Thanks for reading. Sorry it was long. It's been a long time coming!


More Info

This article from the Salt Lake Tribune

This twitter thread by a DSU professor

This article from the New York Times

DSU's webpage addressing the name change

This powerpoint reporting the results of Cicero's impact study

I plan to cite these sources correctly soon, I'm just so very tired and also a bad example to all of my students.