Heaven help lawmakers in deciding whether to rename Mississippi University for Women. They’ll be tugged in all directions by competing political, economic and social groups — and whatever they do, they’ll make plenty of people mad.
Leaders of the university in Columbus propose rebranding MUW in hopes of boosting enrollment. They say they the name should better reflect an institution that has been enrolling men since 1982.
Males made up about 16 percent of the 2,400 students last fall. With a state funding formula that rewards higher enrollment, MUW officials are hoping to increase the student body to 4,500 over the next several years.
MUW President Claudia Limbert this month proposed Reneau University as a new name to honor an interesting, though little known, figure in Mississippi history.
Sallie Eola Reneau was only 18 in 1856 when she wrote to Mississippi Gov. John J. McRae and urged the state to establish a public female college to educate “the indigent and the opulent.” Legislators endorsed Reneau’s plan, but didn’t fund it for decades. The school that’s now MUW finally opened in October 1885.
“She was way ahead of her time in all the things she proposed to do. That not only gives us a historical link, but that also gives us a link into the future,” Limbert said.
The 12-member state College Board will get the first shot at deciding whether to endorse the new name, probably this fall. If a majority of the board supports Reneau, or if they opt for a different name, the process will move to the state Capitol when lawmakers convene in January. The House and Senate will have the final say.
In the mid-1980s, the state Capitol was overrun by MUW alumnae and students when officials pondered whether the cash-strapped state should close some of its eight universities, including the school fondly known as the W.
Legislators quickly backed off the idea after being deluged with complaints from their constituents, wives, sisters and friends who were loyal to MUW.
“It wasn’t pretty, to say the least,” longtime Democratic Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez told The Associated Press this past week.
One of his colleagues, Democratic Sen. Jack Gordon of Okolona, recalled in a separate interview: “We had every little lady that had ever gone to school at the W, of course, against closing the W.”
Change is never easy, but other universities have successfully rebranded themselves.
On Jan. 1, 2008, the University of Missouri-Rolla became Missouri University of Science and Technology, or Missouri S&T. Communications director Andrew Careaga said officials wanted a name that better reflected the mission of the institution founded in 1870 as the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. It had been University of Missouri-Rolla since 1964, but Careaga said people mistakenly considered the school a branch of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Careaga said private donors gave $400,000 to buy new signs, stationery and other items for the 2008 name change.
In Mississippi, lawmakers are starting to stake out positions.
Republican Rep. Gary Chism of Columbus was quoted in his hometown newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch: “Personally, I can’t even spell Reneau. If you were going to make it gender neutral, why did you name it for a woman?”
Dearing said he has received several calls from alumni who’d like the new name to be Mississippi University for Women at Columbus, but none in support of Reneau.
“To most of the older alums,” Dearing said, “it will always be the W.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi politics since 1994. She is based in Jackson.
Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press