On Monday, a committee at Dixie State University recommended changing the institution’s name to Utah Polytechnic State University, the latest step in a painful process to distance itself from its 100-year association with “Dixie,” which evokes the slaveholding South.
More than 2,000 miles away, in Lexington, Va., Washington and Lee University’s board decided this month to keep the college’s contentious name, ending — for now — a fraught debate over whether the 272-year-old institution should continue to honor Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought for the cause of slavery.
Elsewhere in Virginia, three community colleges have decided to rename themselves, disavowing their association with historical figures who enslaved people or held racist views. Two other campuses initially said they didn’t want to change their names, but under pressure from the state community-college board, they’re reconsidering.
The decisions are the culmination of a year’s worth of task forces, surveys, and testy community forums prompted by a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. Last summer, colleges across the country faced calls to cut ties with historical figures or symbols that embodied racism in some way. For a few institutions, the demands were more existential — because their very names honor those figures or symbols.
Many colleges have stripped names from campus buildings because they celebrated controversial aspects of U.S. history. But actually renaming a college is more complicated.
The debates weighed donor demands and political pressures, community pushback and faculty sentiment. All of the colleges were driven to honor their institutional history and do what’s best for students. That’s easier said than done.
‘Pressure to Sanitize’
At Washington and Lee, the attachment to Lee’s name is rooted in a romanticized version of Southern history, said Alison Bell, an associate professor of anthropology: the ideal of the Southern gentleman, the power of the Southern aristocracy, the narrative of the valiant states fighting so-called federal overreach during the Civil War.
“There is something unique about Lexington and Washington and Lee that’s going to make it really hard to sincerely break our relationship with the Confederacy,” Bell said.
Lee, who became the university’s president after the Civil War and reversed its financial turmoil, is deeply woven into the fabric of the campus. Lee’s name has been on the institution since 1870. (The name also honors George Washington, who enslaved people, but the recent name debate has largely focused on Lee.)
The loudest voices … are the people with the deepest pockets.
The Confederate general is buried on campus, as are members of his immediate family, beneath the chapel that long bore Lee’s name. In the chapel, Lee features more prominently than Christian iconography does. The 1969 book chronicling the history of Washington and Lee is called General Lee’s College.
Nearly 80 percent of Washington and Lee faculty members supported a resolution calling for Lee’s name to go. So did the student government. Supporters of a name change said that the blatant association with Lee was offensive to students and employees of color, and would render the university irrelevant in a rapidly diversifying world.
But the opposition was steep. The Generals Redoubt, a group of alumni that purports to fight “blind conformity with the nationally prevailing political and university culture,” campaigned passionately against a name change. “Retain the Name” banners appeared on campus and across the city of Lexington. More than 200 parents sent a letter to the Board of Trustees saying that changing the name would be “a threat to current financial support and to untold future contributions.”
The parents also warned about “the deleterious name change movement” in their letter: “We realize that many institutions are feeling enormous pressure to sanitize their histories, but they do so at the peril of erasing what makes their character unique. Don’t let this happen to Washington and Lee.”
The trustees said they found “no consensus” on whether changing the name would put the university on a better path forward. “Each of us wants what is best for our university, but there are honest disagreements about how to pursue it,” said Will Dudley, the university’s president, in a statement to the campus.
The board instead voted to make a $225-million investment — largely from fund raising — in student support and scholarships, and to “make important symbolic changes on campus,” such as redesigning the university’s diploma and rechristening Lee Chapel as University Chapel.
But for some, those shifts ring hollow without renouncing the biggest symbol of them all: Lee’s name on the university. “They really can’t get past this part of their history,” said Ty Seidule, an emeritus history professor at the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y., and a 1984 graduate of Washington and Lee.
Seidule, who teaches at Hamilton College, is author of Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause, published in January, in which he writes about rejecting his longstanding reverence of the Old South and Lee himself. Seidule is sad about the trustees’ decision because he believes the university has changed a lot in recent decades, becoming more academically rigorous.
“It’s no longer General Lee’s College — it isn’t,” Seidule said. “But it’s hard for people who are my age and older to let go of that name.”
In the end, the perspectives of wealthy alumni and parents who opposed changing the name won out. As a private institution, Washington and Lee relies heavily on philanthropy. “The loudest voices,” Bell said, “are the people with the deepest pockets.”
The university’s board acknowledged that the expected financial cost of changing the name “would be substantial.” In a question-and-answer post, the trustees talked about their responsibilities “as fiduciaries of the university.” Continuing as Washington and Lee, they said, would ensure that the university had “the greatest potential to help all students, faculty, and staff feel welcome, included, and able to thrive.”
Bell said she was surprised that even six of the 28 trustees voted in favor of changing the name. Yet she believes that change is inevitable, even if it’s slow. In the latter half of the 20th century, as most colleges began admitting women, Washington and Lee resisted. Then, in 1991, Bell graduated in one of the university’s first co-ed classes. “Washington and Lee is not going to change for ethical reasons,” she said. “They’re going to change because they get so embarrassed — because they’re so behind the times.”
Question of Relevance
Last summer, Virginia’s State Board for Community Colleges directed its colleges to review the appropriateness of their names. “Are the names that were put on these community colleges — are they still relevant to the community that they serve?” said Douglas M. Garcia, a state board member who will soon become vice chair.
Garcia, a community-college graduate and a former assistant secretary of education in Virginia, would rather be talking about the state’s G3 Initiative — “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” — which covers community-college tuition for low-income students earning credentials in high-demand fields. But names matter too, he said.
The community-college system has 23 campuses. Most are named for their geographic areas. But five are named for people who enslaved others or espoused racist views: John Tyler, Lord Fairfax, Thomas Nelson, Patrick Henry, and Dabney S. Lancaster. The state’s two-year colleges are relatively young, mostly founded in the 1960s, and don’t have close ties to those historical figures.
The first three decided to change their names. “It is no longer enough to talk about our college’s commitment to equity,” wrote Edward Raspiller, president of John Tyler Community College, in a July 2020 message to the campus. “We must take responsibility and enact change to ensure that commitment is a reality for our employees, students and community.” The college was named for the 10th U.S. president, who enslaved people.
A campus task force at the Richmond-area college unanimously recommended changing the name in November. When announcing the decision, Raspiller wrote that honoring Tyler is “in direct conflict with our mission, vision, and commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity.”
Lord Fairfax Community College, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has proposed Laurel Ridge as its new name, saying it honors the area’s natural beauty and “the positive spirit and can-do attitude the college embraces.” The state board will vote on the name next month.
At Thomas Nelson Community College — also named for a slaveholder — employees overwhelmingly supported changing the name, according to a campus survey, while local residents in the city of Hampton, Va., almost unanimously opposed it. In a second survey, about half of students supported a change. A local board member cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the data, saying the student-focused survey had a low response rate, according to the Daily Press.
Local opposition to changes was the main reason that the local boards of the other two colleges — Patrick Henry and Dabney S. Lancaster — initially voted to preserve their names. Henry, the first governor of Virginia, enslaved people. Lancaster was a state education superintendent who opposed integrating Virginia’s schools. (Dabney S. Lancaster Community College is near Washington and Lee.)
The campus naming committee at Patrick Henry — located in rural southern Virginia — suggested adding a hyphen to indicate that the college’s name reflects the two counties it serves, Patrick and Henry, and not the former governor. (The counties themselves are named for Patrick Henry.) But the college’s board voted that idea down, electing to keep the name intact because it’s what local residents wanted. One board member said “it’s a fight worth fighting,” according to the Martinsville Bulletin.
Then, last month, the state community-college board passed a new naming policy, which calls for names to “reflect the values of inclusive and accessible education” and align with a “special emphasis on diversity, equity, and opportunity.” Given those guiding principles, the board directed the two colleges to “reconsider.”
As Patrick Henry’s board chair sees it, the new policy was a mandate. “The state board carries the sole authority to decide the names of Virginia’s community colleges, and they are expecting us to recommend a new name, and if we do not recommend a new name, then they will select one,” Janet Copenhaver, the chair, told the Martinsville Bulletin.
In the naming process, Garcia said “it’s up to the institution” to pick a name, and then the state community-college board approves it.
The state board acted in response to a nationwide racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder. But the main goal in reviewing institutional names was to prioritize student success, Garcia said. The community-college system enrolls a large number of students of color, and its new strategic plan places a strong emphasis on diversity and equity and on improving graduation rates for underserved communities, he said.
Garcia said the changes were also an important opportunity for some of the campuses to rebrand: “What do we really want to be known for?”
When people first hear the name “Dixie State University,” they often think it must be located in the Deep South. In fact, the “Dixie” term is a prominent cultural part of southwestern Utah, a region known as “Utah’s Dixie.” It commemorates the Mormon pioneers who were called to Utah to grow cotton by Brigham Young, the iconic 19th-century leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But outside of Utah, when some prospective employers see “Dixie State” on a résumé or application, they’re taken aback. Richard B. Williams, Dixie State’s president, said he’s heard from alumni that, during interviews for graduate school or medical school, they’re having to answer questions — explicit or implied — like: “Why is there a university named ‘Dixie’ in Utah? Is it a racist university? Is it a white-supremacist university?”
There’s other evidence that the name is holding the university back, Williams said, noting that a community-college system in a neighboring state that he declined to identify won’t sign an agreement with the institution unless the name changes.
The name also doesn’t reflect the university’s revamped identity, Williams said. It has added 112 academic programs in the past five years. Dixie State’s strategic plan calls for an emphasis on STEM fields, experiential learning, and industry partnerships. Williams said he wants to be clearer with prospective students about where Dixie State is and why they should enroll. Dixie State’s renaming committee said on Monday that “Utah Polytechnic State University” does just that.
The Utah Legislature has the sole authority to change the names of public universities. Dixie State was the most hotly contested issue of the last legislative session, Williams said, and many lawmakers were skeptical. But they were willing to support legislation that would explore the possibility of a name change and solicit more community feedback.
In St. George, Utah, the naming debate has become heated and emotional. According to a study on the Dixie State name, commissioned by the university, people outside the state — including younger alumni and university recruiters — were much more likely to support a name change. Some local residents felt that outsiders were calling the shots, and that the growing public university was trying to shun its roots. There were many accusations of “cancel culture.”
“We don’t feel like we’re canceling our past,” Williams said, noting that the university would continue to honor its history no matter what. “We feel like we’re celebrating our past, but moving forward into a very exciting future.”
Philanthropy is on Williams’s mind, but it hasn’t swayed the university’s decision-making, he said. In the university’s name study, two-thirds of alumni who graduated before 2009 said they would stop supporting the university financially if the name was changed. Williams said he’s also heard that directly from many individual alums. Then he looked up whether they’d ever given to the university. Nine times out of 10, they hadn’t.
Over the past year — when the potential name change was the main topic of conversation on campus — fund raising actually went up by 43 percent, Williams said.
“Fund raising is not going to hold us up from doing the right thing,” he said.
The prevailing factor for changing Dixie State’s name is that students and alumni see it as a potential barrier, Williams said. According to the university’s study, 22 percent of recent Dixie State graduates said a prospective employer had expressed concerns about the name. Nearly half were concerned that having “Dixie” on their résumé would cause a problem.
“Any president does not aspire to change the name of a university,” Williams said. But he also doesn’t want his students to have to spend their time explaining what “Dixie State” means anymore, either.