What's in a name?

Who REALLY should get to pick what a university calls itself? And what happens when a name means something very different to locals?

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Okay, let’s get to it.

I’m a midwesterner. I was born and raised in Ohio, currently live in Chicago, and have spent most of my 33 years living somewhere in the Big Ten footprint.

But I’m also a Latter-Day Saint, and part of the American Mormon experience means you end up picking up stuff about Utah, just by virtue of having missionaries eat in your home and spending so much of your social lives with people who grew up in Sandy. I’ve never lived in Utah, but I now know the correct way to pronounce Hurricane (apparently not like the word hurricane?), I know what’s in Fry Sauce, and I know that Apple Beer is not, in fact, actual beer.

For an outsider, I think I’m decently familiar with a lot of Utah stuff. But you know what? Until like, three years ago, I had never heard of Dixie State University.

Like most folks who live east of the Mississippi River, I would have assumed any school named “Dixie State” would have been in, like, Mississippi or Arkansas. But no! It’s in St.George, Utah. They recently moved up to D-1, and now play in the WAC.

I’m not the only person to be confused about this. It’s part of the reason why university trustees voted to change the name of the school.

Plus, “Dixie” means some very different things to different people. For some folks, of course, “Dixie” brings to mind an association with southern slavery, not exactly the connotation a university wants to invoke. A recent study conducted with DSU by Cicero Higher Education said that:

The use of ‘Dixie’ in the name is hurting employment prospects for some alums, some faculty and staff see impacts to their ability to obtain grants/funding, recruitment and retention of faculty and staff is made more challenging, and student recruitment – especially outside of Utah – is negatively impacted.

So at best, the university name is confusing to folks outside the region, and at worst, it may make it harder for the school to recruit the staffers and funding they need.

But not everybody wants this change.

Utah’s Republican Governor, Spencer Cox, has indicated he supports the name change. The school’s trustees and the Utah Board of Education support the change. Faculty support the change. A bill to change the name has cleared Utah’s House Education Committee, although not without opposition.

But Utah’s Republican-dominated Senate may kill the bill. Part of that reasoning may be that Utah voters, particularly those who live near campus, really do not want the name to change. A recent poll showed over 60% of Utahns wanted the name to stay the same.

Another study on changing Dixie’s name, from 2013, might explain why:

The locals want those who experience Utah's Dixie to think of warm welcomes, friendliness and a sense of community. While they acknowledge that non-Utahans are likely to hear ‘Dixie’ and think of slavery and the Civil War, more than one subject suggested this was their problem—that either Dixie needed to be explained, or that those who took offense were too few to worry about— these respondents felt nothing severe enough to warrant dropping the name from local identity.

There’s the issue.

For decades, this is a school that mostly focused on serving the immediate local community. Dixie didn’t even become a university until 2013, after all. And that immediate community is over 93% white, and just .2% African-American. It might be hard to find any voter in Washington County that would admit to being offended by the name. To a typical resident of St.George and a resident of say, St.Louis…”Dixie” can mean two very different things.

So who should get to “own” the name of the school? The school itself? The immediate local community? Prospective students throughout the country?

This isn’t just a Utah problem. Valparaiso is going through this too.

If you’re in my neck of the woods, you’ve probably heard of Valparaiso because you’ve seen all their billboards whenever you drive out of Chicago. Perhaps you remember them from their famous buzzer-beater to beat Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. But if you aren’t a midwesterner or a hoophead, maybe you don’t know much about the small, private school in northwest Indiana.

Valparaiso’s mascot is the Crusaders, or at least. Earlier this month, the school decided to drop the nickname, claiming it had become associated with white nationalist groups.

Now, Crusader can mean a lot of different things. Batman’s nickname is ‘The Caped Crusader’, and nobody would be offended about being associated with Batman. You can be a crusader for social justice, or any litany of other religious, social or political changes.

But when your actual mascot is a knight in shining armour, then you’re talking about The Crusades, a bloody medieval conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Even before hate groups started using more Crusades aligned iconography, there’s a debate as to whether it’s a good idea for a school to align themselves with medieval religious warriors as a mascot. I mean, Valpo is a Lutheran school! Why would you plaster your campus with pre-reformation iconography? Now that the school needs to recruit diverse populations in and around Chicago to maintain enrollment, changing mascots makes more sense. Student groups have been pushing for a change for years, after all.

But again, not everybody agrees. Via NWI.com:

A mixed reaction spread through social media in the aftermath of Irwin-Knott’s announcement. There were many who threatened to never donate to the university again, citing the school caving to cancel culture or “woke” culture, while there were others who rejoiced at the news.

Via another NWI story:

“To have this happen now, in the middle of cancel culture, it feels like (the administration) didn’t really think it through on their own,” former Valparaiso professor Dot Nuechterlein said. “They just gave in to the pressure without talking it out. That’s part of what upsets people in my generation. We’re used to having free and frank conversation.”

If I am reading everything correctly, I think the debate really is less about the name of the mascot, and more about what changing the mascot represents and who gets to decide what it is.

Let’s consider the following thought experiment

Forget how you feel about Cancel Culture, or whatever the heck that actually is, and consider the following hypothetical.

You love your favorite college football team. You own a bunch of shirts with their mascot on it, and maybe some other stuff too. But suddenly, local hate groups start to appropriate your beloved mascot. The adorable bulldog that to you symbolizes your college experience now means something different to significant swaths of your community. Now, when you see somebody rocking that Bulldog, you have to wonder if they’re just a fan of the program or trying to display something more nefarious.

Would you still wear that same stuff when walking around your neighborhood? Would you want your school to change names, or at least, their logo?

It’s not a totally crazy hypothetical. Fresno State once had this problem with gangs. As a school or a fanbase, you can’t totally control what happens to your brand once it goes off into the wild, and sometimes, somebody might try to use it to spread a message that you really don’t agree with.

Would I keep wearing my Buckeye stuff if suddenly the scarlet Block O became associated with hate groups? Maybe I wouldn’t!

This is the sort of thing that no university administrator actually wants to spend their time on. But sometimes, you might need to rip the ol’ band-aid.

University administration is a weird job these days, especially when it comes to athletics. In terms of raw budget numbers, for most D-1 schools, athletics just isn’t that important for a university president. But an athletics scandal is a great way to invite a sea of angry op-eds and emails, and could end your career. Nobody wants to get involved in an athletics culture war when all they really want to do is find ways to get more grant money and stabilize enrollment.

But sometimes, you have no choice but to wade into those waters. Athletic brands are powerful forces. When corralled correctly, they can tell a story and build a connection in a way that no traditional marketing communication ever could. But if that brand is moving in a direction that no longer fits the greater mission of the university, sometimes you may have to make an unpopular decision.

Both Dixie State and Valparaiso need the support of folks who live outside of their local communities in order to reach their institutional goals. Most schools do. And sometimes, that means changing things that have been really important to locals for a long time. Sometimes that’s a mascot. Sometimes that means changing criteria that determine who gets to enroll. Sometimes it’s the entire name of the school.

I understand why both schools decided to push for name changes, and I understand why others disagree with that decision.

But sadly, I don’t have any great ideas for new names.

St.George University is going to confuse almost as many people.

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Quick heads up friends, this week we’ll only do three newsletters. I’m going to the hospital for a quick little procedure that’s probably going to knock me out later this week. We’ll get back to four newsletters next week.

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