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Birney Imes: Embracing name change


Birney Imes



Tomorrow on the campus of Mississippi University for Women an unveiling of sorts will take place. At a convocation service Monday morning MUW President Claudia Limbert is going to announce the school''s new name. Well, sort of, more like the hoped-for new name. 


The name Limbert will offer -- decided after innumerable campus meetings, focus groups, marketing studies and much spirited debate in these and other opinion pages -- is being touted as the choice of the campus community. But, as Limbert has said, this is a state issue, not a campus issue. 


In other words, the debate will rage on awhile longer. 


In other words, everyone who has an opinion of what MUW should be called and is willing to toss it out will be doing so. Once again. 


Think Tower of Babel. 


It''s no secret; Reneau University is the name that will be offered up on Monday. 


It''s a fine choice. The feisty Sally Reneau was an early advocate for women''s education in the state and was instrumental in the creation of the school. Reneau''s life offers a timeless role model for women and men of any era. The word Reneau is sonorous, elegant and suggests a certain cachet any school would envy, that of quality, refinement, tradition. 


The other top contenders, Welty and Waverley, were less relevant choices. Many thought the novelist''s connections and allegiances to the school too tenuous. Waverley is the title of a Sir Walter Scott novel and subsequently the Clay County antebellum mansion. Both preserved "The W," something Reneau, obviously, does not. 


That said, not everyone is happy about Reneau. 


State Sen. Terry Brown, while admitting it''s not his call, doesn''t like Reneau, because as he says, it''s not gender neutral enough. "If we''re going to go gender neutral, we need to rock and roll with it all the way," says Brown who likes Mississippi University or East Mississippi University.  


Brown says he will vote for the name presented to the Legislature. "I won''t be an obstacle," he says.  


Rep. Gary Chism, who is adamantly opposed to a name change, is no fan of Reneau either. 


"Personally, I can''t even spell Reneau," said Chism. "If you were going to make it gender neutral, why did you name it for a woman?" 


Reneau is only gender specific if you want to make it that. On the other hand, " ... for Women" is inescapably such. 


"No one is going to know who she was," one critic has complained about Reneau. 


Anyone know who Reuben Webster Millsaps, John Harvard, Elihu Yale, Sophia Smith or William Marsh Rice were? Does that make you think any less of the schools named after them? 


While the disenfranchised alumni group, who call themselves the Wrens (short for "W renegades"), has been opposed to changing the name, other organizations have endorsed and embraced the idea. Locally, the Link, the Columbus City Council, the Lowndes Board of Supervisors and many independent alumni are on board. Mississippi Economic Council''s Blake Wilson will make the argument for a new name at Monday''s event. 


Times have changed; other than the architecture, the present day school bears little resemblance to The W our mothers, wives and sisters attended. Many potential male students have said they are repelled by the school''s "Women" moniker. 


As evidenced by their letters in today''s paper, The Wrens'' opposition to the change is fueled by their disdain for President Limbert. Reading the eight or 10 letters we received Friday (many of them with the same talking points), the group seems to have inextricably linked its wish for Limbert''s departure with the name change initiative. 


Folks, these are two different issues. The issue at hand is name change and the health of the school, not the efficacy of Dr. Limbert''s presidency. 


Chism tells of a meeting last year he attended with Limbert, MUW Counsel Perry Sansing and MUW Foundation Director Gary Bouse. Also attending were Brown, and Reps. Jeff Smith and a lobbying group from Jackson. 


"We told her she ain''t got a dog''s chance if the old alumni isn''t with her," said Chism. "She told us she was going to make that reconciliation." 


It hasn''t happened. 


"These alums are really whaling on them," Brown says about his colleagues in the Legislature. "They are calling me, asking what can they do to get the alums to stop. 


"It''s going to be a high-strung deal, no doubt about it," said Brown. 


Chism thinks a name change is hopeless as long as the alumni are in opposition. "If she had just gotten the old alumni on board, this would have been much more palatable," said Chism, who thinks reconciliation is impossible as long as Limbert is at the school. "I think the red has been licked off the candy," he said. 


Granted, there are lots of cats to herd here: the campus community, alumni, IHL board and, perhaps most importantly, the local Legislative delegation. 


At its retreat last summer the IHL Board voted unanimously to support a name change. Reportedly, that group likes Reneau University. The IHL must first approve a new name; then it will present the name to the Legislature. 


Brown thinks the process will start in the House and then come to the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee. One possibility, said Brown, would be for the Senate to add an amendment that would put the decision in the lap of the IHL Board, a move that would depoliticize the process.  


That is where the decision should be made, Brown said. "The name of a university is not an Legislative deal," he said. "The College Board should decide it. It''s like whether State and Ole Miss should play Southern. That''s not our deal." 


The welfare of the school that has graced the city of Columbus for 125 years is certainly our deal. I don''t need to enumerate here the many reasons, only to say it is an essential to this community. 


On a personal note, The W is my deal, too. I went to the Demonstration School on The W campus. So did my father and mother before me and our three children after. My mother and my wife are both W alumna. Until Clyda Rent built the much-needed front entrance, I spent many a summer evening playing freeze tag with our kids on front campus. Over the years I have enjoyed cherished friendships with W faculty and administrators. Many a Saturday morning MUW President Charles P. Hogarth took me and his son, Chuck, bowling in east Columbus. I have attended innumerable concerts, lectures and openings on campus. I love the place, and I want it to survive and flourish. 


The school needs a new name. Now more than ever. 


Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment Carlee McClelland commented at 8/9/2009 9:22:00 AM:

The W should remain the W. The president isn't from Cols. The W is part of our history.Other things of history of Cols.,hasn't had there name changed.Leave the W alone.Like in Texas,they say don't mess with Texas.I say don't mess with the W in Cols.,Ms.


Article Comment Dave commented at 8/9/2009 1:38:00 PM:

The welcomed name change is long overdue. The University of Mississippi for Women is about as "non-biased" a name as Mississippi State for Caucasians would be. If you don't like the name change, form a private school, don't receive government money, and name it what you like. Just don't ask for my tax dollars for your bias-named school. I like it - Reneau University (for EVERYONE).


Article Comment Megan Morgan commented at 8/9/2009 3:27:00 PM:

"Anyone know who Reuben Webster Millsaps, John Harvard, Elihu Yale, Sophia Smith or William Marsh Rice were? Does that make you think any less of the schools named after them?"

The lovely thing about schools like Harvard and Yale is that they have carefully planned brand-name recognition going for them. Brand recognition which has taken them decades, even centuries to build up. Mississippi University for Women, commonly known as The W, HAS that brand recognition going for it. Whether they like the name or not, people know what The W is.

Changing the name will not be the immediate panacea that Limbert, Imes, and co. expect it to be, because there is no way to build up brand recognition without time, money, careful orchestration, and excellent leadership. Given the fiasco that the name-change process has been so far (wild goose chase after unavailable name "Welty," for example), I have no faith in the current administration's ability to successfully rebrand the school. Without such leadership and resources, there is no way that "Reneau" will ever be a Harvard. Regardless of whether we change the name, if we don't change the president too, the country's oldest public university for women will crumble into nothingness. That will be a very sad day.


Article Comment Megan Morgan commented at 8/9/2009 3:28:00 PM:

And also..."cats to herd"? Who herds cats??


Article Comment Journalism Grad commented at 8/9/2009 8:27:00 PM:

And why is The W not known among "the 80% of people" you have talked to Diana? Because The W has not recruited outside of the greater Golden Triangle area for the last 7 years. I daresay I graduated long before you did, and live 6 states away, and many people here know what The W is.


Article Comment Jill Bethune Wood commented at 8/9/2009 8:54:00 PM:

Millsaps was named in 1890 after Major Millsaps who was an advocate of education. John Harvard had a fledgling school named after him in 1639 when he left half of his estate to it. In 1718 Elihu Yale was the benefactor of a college that decided to name itself after him in thanks. Sophia Smith gave the bequest to the college that bears her name. The school founded by Sally Reneau is older than all of those but Yale. I have no objection to honoring Sally Reneau, since The W would not exist were it not for her efforts. My objections have more to do with Limbert's trying to blame the University's problems on the name instead of taking the responsibility herself. It is not a personal dislike of Limbert. I have never met the woman, though we have been in the same room at least 5 times in the last 7 years. She might be quite pleasant, I have no way of knowing. But in the "actions speak louder than words" department, I know her well.


Article Comment Donna L. Bridges commented at 8/9/2009 11:54:00 PM:

"While the disenfranchised alumni group, who call themselves the Wrens (short for "W renegades"), has been opposed to changing the name, ..."

Sir, the Wrens (aka Wrenegades) are an informal group. The group that was disaffiliated by the current president is now known, formally, as Mississippi's First Alumnae Association. That website can be found at

No one has to be a member of an informal group to be a member of the formal group. And, vice versa. You know, ... trying to get the name right is important.


Article Comment I love the W too commented at 8/10/2009 12:32:00 PM:

Why does the school need a new name?? Limbert was sent here to close it down eventually so why bother? She claims it will increase enrollment. It will just destroy whats left of the school. And like Terry Brown and others said, by naming it after a woman, they are really not changing it to a non-specific gender name. If they want they name to show its coed (which was their FIRST mistake) they should have just added on "men" to the name.


Article Comment Jw commented at 8/10/2009 6:14:00 PM:

Reneau-an excellent choice for excellence in education! Congratulations to the new Name. Future Graduates will be proud when they say in an interview "I graduated from Reneau University" what a stately sounding name with a strong background in education! Again, something done right for education in Columbus.


Article Comment robert commented at 8/10/2009 7:32:00 PM:

another stupid comment. does it matter what the people who support/pay.or think? guess not, has it, not yet. then again we all think ,sumthin. is it thatm hard to be honest. i no the grammar is not perfect,no capitol letters, less than perfect? whos not


Article Comment Judi commented at 8/10/2009 8:05:00 PM:

As someone who attended the W, the name change is not as upsetting to me as having a 'Nissan' Auditorium.


Article Comment Diana commented at 8/10/2009 8:48:00 PM:

In response to JournalismGrad: I never said that the name was the entire reason the W is not well known-I merely remarked that it is not. Since you pointed out that you are probably much older than I, then you surely will agree that the world has changed since your time at MUW, and that businesses and recruiters have changed as well. Even in the world of academia I constantly have to explain myself-and that's unacceptable. Do I think a name change will totally solve this? Certainly not. The W needs to market itself in a radical new way. But I do think that it's time for a name change, and that it's archaic and more than a little silly to hold onto a name that has only been in place since the 70's, one that is sexist and no longer reflects the status of the university.


Article Comment Jack Taylor commented at 8/11/2009 1:57:00 PM:

I really can't believe that we have a "Nissan" auditorium on the W campus. I could understand one being down in Canton on the Nissan plant property paid for by Nissan. This is just getting way to commercialized. Whats gonna be next?? the Kia cafeteria & the Toyota gymnasium?


Article Comment Paul J Miller III commented at 9/14/2009 4:59:00 AM:

Leave it to the Educated to come into town screw up someones home town. Can't make a real name for themselves other than destroying what isn't rightfully theirs. Leave the name alone, Leave Columbus as it should be the way it was when you came. Work on teaching what needs to be taught and then maybe they'll name a buliding for you!


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