SALT LAKE CITY -- State lawmakers approved university status for Dixie State on Wednesday despite vocal opposition from several House members who said keeping Dixie in the name links the new university to roots of bigotry and slavery.
With officials from the school and St. George in the gallery, lawmakers voted 68-6 to approve HB 61, granting university status to the 101-year-old school. Later in the morning the same measure was approved in the Senate by a unanimous vote.
It was a moment of pride for some members of the Sunshine Caucus, and a moment of irritation for several House members from Salt Lake County.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the change in the school's status offered an opportunity to address the use of Dixie in the name, which she linked to slavery.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, lauded the school being elevated to university status but voted against the change, because of the name.
"We're talking about the future. It's important to consider the connotation certain names have," King said.
Bill sponsor, Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said the term Dixie has great meaning to people with roots to Southern Utah.
"I understand the hatred that was in the world because of the Civil War, because of the things that have happened since then, because of discrimination. We feel like we are taking steps to outgrow that," Ipson said.
Surveys done by the school showed that 83 percent of the residents of Washington County support keeping the name Dixie in the school's name.
Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane, said the school has already taken steps to distance itself from any link to the Confederacy or the Civil War. He said the school dropped its nickname of Rebels when it moved to Division II sports status, and it also removed a statue on campus with a rebel theme.
"We've done everything we can to make that separation complete," Last said.
One local lawmaker, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, thinks there would have been a community backlash if the name had been changed.
Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, spoke in support of the school's change in status, recalling how moving Weber State to university status had done a lot for Northern Utah.
He said he hoped those who have concerns about the name will understand the heritage of St. George and Southern Utah.