When Gov. Haley Barbour came out in favor of merging Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University, I was ecstatic.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wrote editorials for the Jackson Daily News, Sunday Clarion-Ledger and The Commercial Appeal calling for such a merger. It created quite a stir at the time, for it put the major newspapers of the region on record calling for the dismantling of the "W."
At the time, I thought MUW was an anachronism. I considered it an embarrassment that Mississippi would support a university for Steel Magnolias.
I wondered why it had taken the governor 30 years to reach such a sensible conclusion. At Ole Miss, where my band played for frat parties at the SAE house as the future governor danced (sort of) the night away, I don't recall him ever taking a long time to reach a decision. The music began. Feet danced. Hands sliced through the air, gamely chasing after the Twist, the Swim and the Funky Chicken.
Earlier this week, I did something no self-respecting editorial writer should ever do: I gave MUW a second thought. Now I think I was wrong to ever take such a position.
Accordingly, exercising the omnipotent powers possessed by all editorial writers, I hereby rescind the merger/closure positions taken by all three newspapers. That decision is final, not subject to appeal.
Why did I change my mind?
The United States has more than five dozen colleges and universities devoted to providing women a quality education. Bryn Mawr College comes to mind, along with Smith College, Texas Women's University, and Barnard College. Then there are all the universities that have women's colleges within the larger framework of their coed institutions—Yeshiva University, the University of Denver, University of Richmond and, closer to home, Tulane University.
MUW should be a source of pride, not derision. This business about changing the university's name to Reneau University is a joke. MUW does not need a name change. It needs a mission change. Instead of trying to attract more male students, it should restructure its academic mission and provide an even stronger educational program for women. Build it, and they will come.
Mississippi has a history of shortchanging women. We did not ratify the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, until 1984, more than 60 years after it was ratified by the rest of the country. We've never had a female governor or U.S. Senator or attorney general, but we have produced—thanks to MUW—generations of strong women who have quietly assumed roles of leadership in the state. This is no time to turn off the faucet. Mississippi needs more female leaders, not more women bearing wishy-washy diplomas from a university that no one has ever heard of.
All of this hit home for me recently when I read that Allegra Brigham was named interim president of Mississippi University for Women. I went to high school with Brigham, and I know her to be a brilliant, extremely effective communicator. One unusually hot summer in the 1960s, when we were both teenagers, I accompanied Brigham and her family to their house at Lake Washington. Soon after arriving, Brigham and I were sent on a mission into nearby Glen Allen to purchase a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream for her father.
We sauntered into a tiny grocery/service station and learned that they did not stock Neapolitan ice cream. Afraid to return with nothing to show for our efforts, I bought a gallon of chocolate, a gallon of vanilla and a gallon of strawberry, figuring that daddy could simply make his own Neapolitan dessert.
He took one look at the stack of containers piled on the kitchen table and groaned.
"I said Neapolitan," he said.
"Sir," I said, "they didn't have it, so I got this."
He shook his head, not buying my explanation. Clearly, that ice cream was going to sit on the table until hell froze over.
Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Brigham stepped forward. "You know," she began, choosing her words carefully. "The whole is equal to the sum of its parts. I think we can put our heads together and build a great Neapolitan."
Daddy grinned, understanding full well that he had been beaten by superior logic.
I have a hunch that Brigham can do for MUW what she did for daddy: Build an academic Neapolitan.
But forget the name change. Put together a task force to come up with ideas on how to change MUW's mission so that it will become an even stronger institution capable of attracting women from all over the country, not an unwanted stepchild of Mississippi State. Offer a strong master's degree in public administration. Move the entire social work program from Ole Miss to MUW. Offer an MBA tailored toward leadership roles for women.
Merge MUW if the economic situation demands it, as the governor has suggested, but don't strip it of its name or its unique identity. In case you haven't heard, women are a Big Deal in the 21st century. Make MUW a showplace for training CEOs, future U.S. senators and Supreme Court justices, and you will see the campus parking lots filled with car tags from all over the country.
I disagree with merger, because there's no way to guarantee the name and unique identity would remain. Other than that, I agree with everything else you say and love your ideas for making MUW stronger and more viable. Maybe with Allegra and her successor, we will have an administration with the vision to put ideas like yours in place. THANKS for seeing the light and telling it. If Mississippi loses MUW, there is no other place that will focus on educating women and shaping them to be leaders. There just isn't a substitute for what the W offers.
Thank you! I am so glad to read this. You are my newest hero! We do have something special with the W that needs to be marketed, and you are right: They will come from everywhere. They already do to a remarkable degree, considering the lack of marketing outside the surrounding counties.
Again, thank you for this.
Although I agree with lls32001 that merger has too much uncertainty as to the continued unique identity of MUW, I must say that Mr. Dickerson's observation is what so many alums have been promoting for years! It is reassuring to hear those who have no connection with The W now see its merits. Even more so, it is heartening to see someone willing to change their opinion after reading substantive information on women's education! The person chosen for the new president will be the key to the future of MUW.