By Jaons Browne/The Columbus Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — Opinions about the future of Mississippi University for Women are as diverse as the many groups who hold a stake in the college’s success.
A couple truths are universally accepted: MUW is facing serious challenges and nobody knows how to meet them.
At least not yet.
After a bill aiming to merge MUW with Mississippi State University, and another to give the state College Board permission to change the school’s name, were shot down in legislative committees, invested groups are headed back to their proverbial drawing boards. Even those opposed to the proposed legislation don’t necessarily have better ideas. They just know they didn’t like the ideas being proposed.
With that, the brainstorming has resumed.
The administration at MUW, headed by outgoing President Claudia Limbert, who proposed the name change, are keeping quiet about their plans.
“We’ll just have to look at other options,” said Limbert addressing the failed name change.
The administration had hoped a new name would make the school more attractive to male students and boost enrollment as it struggles to offset an expected $3.5 million cut in state funding over the next two years.
A planned 5 percent increase in tuition in each of the next two years, in conjunction with a projected 2 percent increase in enrollment, would have offset about 30 percent of the funding shortfall. The school plans to make up the rest in cuts and efficiencies.
A plan submitted to the College Board estimates MUW will cut 29 jobs, five degree offerings, 15 courses and one department over the next two years.
Limbert declined to go into specifics regarding MUW’s marketing strategies and how it intends to meet the projected increase in enrollment.
“We’re always looking at different marketing strategies. We’re very up to date with our marketing, being very tech savvy,” she said.
MUW, which has the smallest enrollment of the state’s universities, had a Fall 2009 enrollment of 2,478, a 4.8 percent increase over Fall 2008.
There have been talks between MUW and East Mississippi Community College about a possible partnership.
Limbert insists the talks are purely to explore the idea and no agreements have been made.
“We haven’t investigated it enough yet. It’s one of many ideas,” she said of the partnership.
EMCC President Rick Young has stated his enthusiastic support for a partnership with MUW.
“We would embrace the opportunity and try to grow The W by hopefully having more of our students that would transfer from EMCC to The W,” said Young.
MUW began offering a Tuition Guarantee program this semester to Lowndes County students who complete their associate’s degrees at EMCC. Officials said the program may be extended to cover students from other counties in EMCC’s Golden Triangle Campus district.
State Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, says MUW would benefit from a pipeline of students from EMCC, whose enrollment is “growing by leaps and bounds.”
“EMCC is talking about capital improvement and expansion. Why not just get part of MUW and have an agreement to utilize the buildings and one of the dorms?” he said.
If a deal can’t be struck with EMCC, MUW will have to find another way to appeal to new students. State Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, says that can only be done by promoting the university’s strong points, but in a new way.
“I don’t know what they can do. They’ve got to do a massive amount of marketing, which will take up a lot of money,” he said. “They’ve got to market the quality of education, smaller classrooms, more economical costs. They’ve got the best nursing school in the South. They’ve got to market that big time.”
Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, says part of the answer for MUW may lie in reconnecting with the school’s past. He says MUW’s new administration should reach out to the disaffiliated Mississippi’s First Alumnae Association to tap into that group’s recruiting and fundraising abilities.
“The W needs to make peace with the alumni. That’s the first thing the new president better do, because without the alumni’s support, the new president will have an equally hard time,” said Chism. “Once everybody starts singing off the same page, everybody will be a recruiter.”
Lillian Wade, who will take over as president of Mississippi’s First Alumnae Association in April, agrees with Chism’s assessment. She said the group is constantly on the lookout for high school students to steer toward MUW and the Lowndes County Chapter has also raised over $100,000 in scholarship funds for MUW.
“We have always given money. We’ll give more. We’ve always been out looking for students. We’re still going to do that,” said Wade.
While the alumnae don’t have any specific suggestions for MUW administrators, beyond opposing mergers or a name change, Wade says the group refuses to panic.
“We’ve seen bad times come and go. Hard times look terrible going into the tunnel, but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Wade.
One thing that does scare Wade is the prospect of cutting programs and degrees at MUW in the name of saving money.
“You cannot cut education to solve economic problems. Any time you cut something, it takes forever to bring it back. When it’s cut, more than likely, it’s gone forever,” she said.
Ricki Garrett, a member of the Alumnae Association and a past member of the College Board, says the current College Board should make the search for a new president for MUW a priority.
“The potential is very high that, with support from MUW alums and the new administration, enrollment could grow significantly. Then there can be better relationships between MUW leadership and business leaders,” said Garrett.
She says the university must refocus its mission of promoting women’s leadership. And while the Alumnae Association are staunch opponents of a merger with MSU, Garrett says a partnership with EMCC might be exactly what the school needs.
“I think all universities ought to partner with community colleges. That’s one of our strengths in Mississippi is a good transfer policy between universities and community colleges. Any time higher education can forge those partnerships it’s always better for schools and the community.”