August 8, 2009 9:41:00 PM
Wesley Ellis is a professional photographer, husband, dad and all-around nice guy. No one would mistake him for a female, yet his 1998 diploma is from Mississippi University for Women.
"Being a male grad from the W, it has never hindered my ability to get a job," Ellis, 35, said last week from his photography studio in Forest.
Mississippi University for Women has been enrolling men for more than 25 years, and administrators say it''s time to choose a new name that better reflects the mission of the campus in Columbus. Men made up about 16 percent of the nearly 2,400 students last fall, the most recent statistics available.
MUW president Claudia Limbert will announce her choice for a new school name on the campus Monday, though she doesn''t have final say in re-branding the school. A majority of the 12-member state College Board must agree on a new name, and the board''s recommendation will be forwarded to the 174-member state Legislature in January.
Those with inside knowledge of the process say Limbert''s recommendation will be Reneau University, after Sallie Eola Reneau.
In 1856, the outspoken 18-year-old Reneau 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 her plan, but didn''t put any money into it for decades. The school finally opened in October 1885.
Business groups, including the statewide Mississippi Economic Council, have been working with Limbert to promote a name change in hopes of helping MUW boost enrollment.
Money is an important part of the decision.
The state College Board bases its annual funding recommendations on enrollment at each of the state''s eight public universities, and MUW is among the smaller schools. Officials believe the campus could accommodate about 4,500 students if several buildings were renovated. More students equals more money.
After months of meetings on and off campus and working with a Jackson marketing firm, MUW officials narrowed the list of potential new names to Reneau University and Waverley University.
One of the best known landmarks near Columbus is the antebellum Waverley Mansion, on a former plantation. Additionally, they noted Waverley University references an 1815 novel, "Waverley," by Sir Walter Scott, which is generally regarded as the first historical novel and primarily is the story of a young Englishman who travels to Scotland and becomes involved in the Jacobite revolution of 1745.
Welty University was also considered, to honor the late author Eudora Welty, who attended what was then Mississippi State College for Women in 1925-27. Welty''s family, however, withdrew the name from consideration.
In building a new image for MUW, officials are trying to avoid Old South associations that some say Waverly or even Reneau might evoke. The Lowndes County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in April, wrote Limbert, asking the university not consider either name, stating both conjured old South images disrespectful to African Americans.
Insiders say it''s still possible MUW could end up with a new name reflecting its geographical location.
Changing names is common practice for public and private schools.
Memphis State University became the University of Memphis in 1994. Alabama Christian College became Faulkner University in 1985. The University of Southwestern Louisiana became the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1999.
Randolph Macon Woman''s College, a Virginia private school, became Randolph College in 2007, and it expanded its mission by starting to enroll men. Florida State College for Women became Florida State University in 1947.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in Atlanta, said some universities rename themselves to improve an image. Others choose a new name to reflect a new academic mission or to seek higher enrollment.
She said administrators need to clearly articulate why they''re making a change.
"Change is difficult," Wheelan said, "no matter when you do it."
Jenna McMurphy of Grenada, who is starting her junior year at MUW, said she believes the school should be renamed, but doesn''t have strong feelings about what the new name should be. "If I were a guy, I just don''t know that I would want my diploma to say ''Mississippi University for Women,"'' McMurphy said.
But Ellis said it has never bothered him, and he''d like to see the school keep its name.
"Having Mississippi University for Women on my resume has always been a conversation starter," Ellis said. "It''s never been a negative thing for me at all."
Dispatch reporter Kristin Mamrack contributed to this story.
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