SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers have approved Dixie State College's bid to become a university and stick with its traditional name despite concerns about racial insensitivity.

The Senate unanimously approved the measure Wednesday morning. The chamber suspended its rules, skipped a hearing or debate on the proposal and voted on it immediately after the House approved it 68-6.

Utah regents approved the name change to Dixie State University last month.

Bill sponsor Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, called the move a "key economic driver" for southern Utah, saying that the university classification would draw more students from in and out of state.

Some lawmakers such as Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, opposed the bill, saying they approved of the university status but would not vote for it because of racist undertones associated with the name "Dixie."

Lawmakers understand the sensitivity to the college's name, said Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane, a Dixie alumnus. "Maybe you could say it's painful for some people," he said, but added that Utahns "by and large" want the college to keep its name.

The college replaced its mascot in 2009 in an effort to shed any Confederate connotations, Last said. The college changed its mascot from the "rebel" it adopted in the 1950's to the "red storm."

The name "Dixie" is a source of identity, heritage and pride for southern Utah, said Ipson, the bill's sponsor. He cited a survey in which he said over 80 percent of the university and surrounding community approved of the name.

Dixie has been a nickname for the St. George region since the 1800s, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent pioneers, including former slave owners and drivers, there to grow cotton. That history had prompted some students, professors and state educators to call for a name change.

The bill now awaits the governor's signature.


Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.