February 16, 2013 8:44:24 PM
Now we have made it official. On Friday, Dr. James Borsig was inaugurated president of Mississippi University for Women amid all the pageantry and partying that accompanies such an occasion. The city of Columbus, all supporters of the university, and its new president have high hopes for its future.
I, too, expect great things of my alma mater; but I also find myself looking back with a powerful nostalgia at the way things used to be.
Dr. Borsig correctly has pointed out that the institution was founded to educate poor, white girls. In fact, at that time Mississippi already had colleges for white boys, black boys and black girls. The Columbus Female Institute, later to become the Industrial Institute and College, filled that gap.
I think that during the Depression, my father accepted a job in Columbus because the W would be there for my sister and me. There was no question of where we would go to college. We were lucky to have that. We were lucky indeed. I admit I did not want to go there at first, but I learned to love it.
It was certainly different then. The biggest difference was that it was all white and all female, but there were others as well.
Someone told me recently that it is difficult today to get students to fill leadership positions in the student body, that many are interested only in getting their degrees and nothing else. I hope that does not last. They are missing extraordinary collateral advantages.
In our days of yore, students were mostly not only residential, but confined somewhat to the campus. They had Saturday morning classes. Some of the weekends were closed, which meant no one could go home or visit friends away from campus over Saturday night. Students complained about it, of course, but being stuck in Columbus meant they had to find their fun there -- and they did. I believe students during those years have more entertaining memories of college life than some do today.
Today's students would never be willing to go back to that regimen, but they miss some of the cohesiveness we experienced. Sometimes shared "hardships" can be binding.
Today many students do not live on campus. I did not either. I had to exert effort to "belong," but it was well worth the effort.
We had a dress code then. In fact, shortly before my class came along, students wore uniforms. Skirts, no slacks, were navy blue. Navy blouses were trimmed according to class: seniors had solid white collars; juniors, white trimmed with navy; sophomores, navy trimmed with white; and freshmen, solid navy. I do not believe anyone mourned the demise of that regulation. I have heard some women say they never wore navy again.
Fortunately, my contemporaries never had to wear uniforms, but they did have restrictions. We wore dresses; jeans were for recreation only. Shorts were required for gym, of course, but never allowed on front campus unless covered by a raincoat.
We chafed at, but abided by, the rules. As a result we did not have a grungy-looking student body. Styles change, however. Today I hardly ever see a college campus that does not look grungy. In retrospect, I think Harvard was the worst.
We had a lot more constraints. Many would not be tolerated today. In yesteryear, however, colleges functioned in loco parentis (in place of parents, not crazy parents.) That is why so many girls were sent to the strict Mississippi State College for Women (MSCW) for at least their first two years of college.
Daddy would let his little girl go off to school only if she would go to the W first in order to grow up a little bit. That meant that many of Mississippi's cutest and most beautiful girls attended MSCW before going off to conquer the worlds of Ole Miss, State, or even the wide world beyond. Admittedly, for bad or good, that made the W somewhat of an elitist school for a while, veering away from its stated purpose to serve the needs of poor families. (If, at this point, you want to say, "Why is any of this relevant at all?' well, that in itself is one of the differences.)
The curriculum has changed, also. In my day many young women majored in home economics. In fact several of us who married right out of college belonged to a little supper club. I was the only new bride who did not have a home economics major. I worried about how my cooking would compare to others. Now, I think there is no home economics major. There is a culinary arts degree, though. I guess that is a step up. We had no nursing school. That specialty of one of the W's most outstanding now. Today's woman is likely to have to be a breadwinner, too. She needs a marketable skill.
The important thing is, whatever the makeup of the student body, that the university offer the kind of education that makes young people competitive in a constantly changing world. We would earnestly hope that it offer, too, the luxury of intellectual growth that lasts a lifetime.
Dr. Borsig has a big job on his hands, but it is exhilarating to rise to a challenge. We wish him well.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.