By Errol Castens
OXFORD – University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones announced to faculty and staff members on Friday a plan to make the campus a “more inclusive and welcoming environment.”
It contains six action steps, including creation of a vice chancellor-level position for diversity and inclusion and more fully balancing new symbols and placing names on campus with those evocative of the Old South.
One of the most potentially divisive issues the effort raises is about the name “Ole Miss,” which the university said it will still use in “appropriate contexts.”
“Our longstanding nickname is beloved by the vast majority of our students and alumni,” Jones wrote in the report. “A few, especially among our faculty, are uncomfortable using the term ‘Ole Miss’ – some at all, and some within the academic context. Some object simply because it is a nickname and prefer the more formal name, and some express concern about its origin, believing that the term is racist.”
The nickname arose from a university yearbook contest in the late 1800s, but the phrase “Ole Miss” originally was a name that slaves used to refer to a plantation owner’s wife.
A national study about the nickname found most people view it merely as a term of affection, while a majority likes it and only “a very small percentage” surveyed associate the university under either its nickname or its formal name with negative race issues.
“Both names will be used in appropriate contexts going forward, with particular emphasis going to ‘Ole Miss’ in athletics and as a representation of the university’s spirit,” a statement from the university said.
The plan, adopted after the Sensitivity and Respect Committee completed a review of the university’s environment on race and diversity, includes five other steps:
• Create a vice chancellor-level position for diversity and inclusion.
The job will be created after consultation with faculty and will be subject to approval by the university’s governing board. A search committee will be formed to begin work during the fall semester.
• Establish a portfolio model of diversity and engagement.
• Deal squarely with the issue of race while also addressing other dimensions of diversity.
“Our unique history regarding race provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on race issues, but also a large opportunity – one we should and will embrace,” Jones said.
A faculty group focused on UM’s history with slavery began work last year, and Jones voiced a renewed commitment to the work of the university’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
• Implement a symbolic and formal dedication of all new students to the ideals of inclusion and fairness to which UM is devoted.
The UM Creed was adopted as a means of communicating and cultivating the university’s core values. While a public university cannot require a pledge as a condition of enrollment, it can work with students to reinforce the creed’s values, Jones said.
• Offer more history, putting the past into context, telling more of the story of Mississippi’s struggles with slavery, secession, segregation and their aftermath.
The Richmond, Virginia-based consultants hired by the university for its diversity study cited the way their hometown, the one-time capital of the Confederacy, addressed negative aspects of its history. City leaders chose not to remove existing statues and building names but to give them more historical context and to add new markers that reflect the city’s later cultural changes.
Jones noted the statue of James Meredith, the university’s first black student, as an example of that approach.
Vardaman Hall (named for white supremacist Gov. James K. Vardaman), Johnson Commons (named for Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr., who, as lieutenant governor, famously challenged U.S. Marshals tasked with getting Meredith safely enrolled) and the Confederate statue in Lyceum Circle are likely subjects of additional context.
Some recognitions of diversity have already been made. The entrance of the Manning Center was recently designated the Williams-Reed Foyer in honor of Ben Williams and James Reed, the university’s first two black football players. The new Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement opens this fall in Stewart Hall.
Alumni groups have urged renaming Coliseum Drive, after Tad Smith Coliseum is razed, as Chucky Mullins Drive, after a beloved black football player whose spirit after a paralyzing injury was a unifying force to the university community. Confederate Drive is slated to become Chapel Lane.
“It is my hope that the steps outlined here … will prove valuable in making us a stronger and healthier university, bringing us closer to our goal of being a warm and welcoming place for every person every day, regardless of race, religious preference, country of origin, ability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender expression,” Jones said. “There were and will continue to be differences of opinion among us. But, I am encouraged that while our discussions over recent months were frank, even tough, they also were civil and respectful.”
The University of Mississippi had 22,286 students last academic year on its six campuses, including the main one in Oxford. The enrollment was 15.4 percent black, and its overall minority enrollment was 24.8 percent.
The university has worked for decades to overcome the image damage of a riot over the 1962 admission of Meredith. Former Chancellor Robert Khayat led the effort to disassociate the university from the Confederate flag and other Old South symbols at athletic events and to enhance the university’s active inclusion of minorities.
Jones has continued and expanded on the diversity emphasis. An incident last year involving a noose left by students on the Meredith statue brought about a newly intensified exploration of campus inclusiveness issues.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.