Article Comment 

Steve Mullen: Denialism and The W


Steve Mullen



In his new book "Denialism," author Michael Specter explores how, on occasion, "an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie." 


Denialism is all around us. We often ignore reams of evidence, if it contradicts something we find more comfortable or easier to believe. 


At Mississippi University for Women, the school wears denialism on its letterhead. The university has admitted men for 17 years, yet many of its most ardent supporters would apparently rather see the university die than change its identity. 


The university itself isn''t in denial as much as those who claim to support it. As we know, the current, and perhaps last, president of this university, Dr. Claudia Limbert, undertook a detailed and exhaustive name change process, even as many MUW faithful fought to keep its name and its mission to serve women the same.  


The MUW denialists still believe the debate is about either changing the name or keeping the current one, and are becoming more creative to continue framing it that way. A few weeks ago, someone commenting on my column online argued that the name Mississippi University for Women is still viable, because more women attend universities than men. "By trying to change the name to accommodate male students the state would once again be BEHIND the curve instead of ahead of it," this reader asserts. (Never mind, a survey conducted during the name change process found only 3 percent of female high school graduates said they''d even consider attending a single-sex institution. It is the nature of denialists to discount these and other facts.) 


A gender-neutral name probably would have given the state''s smallest university a fighting chance for survival -- back in 1982, when the gender barrier was broken, by court order. Those not affected by denialism realize this is when the school needed to make the tough decisions about its identity. 


The debate, however, has moved beyond name change to outright survivability. Will the school be a stand-alone institution, or part of another university -- or even open at all? 


Gov. Haley Barbour is set to release his Executive Budget Recommendation this Monday -- a proposed budget that will reflect a $600 million cut in spending statewide, even compared to this lean budget year. He has made clear he would push for consolidation among state agencies. 


What will Barbour recommend for the state''s universities? He isn''t saying. But those with knowledge of his plans say that if he doesn''t call for an outright closure of MUW, he''ll most certainly advocate its consolidation with Mississippi State University. 


A consolidation between the two schools wouldn''t save tons of money. But it would save some. It would also be an investment in Mississippi State''s future, giving it room to grow with new programs and additional classroom space. 


The Legislature has been good to MUW denialists over the years. How will the school fare this go-around, as lawmakers wrestle with a state budget that will be $600 million smaller? 


Name change aside -- a move that could be moot now anyway -- will lawmakers take the denialist view that MUW can stay its course? Will the College Board move forward with a search for a new university president and all the costs that go along with seating him or her? Or will they follow the governor''s lead, and move to consolidate -- eliminating those expenses? 


Working in MUW''s favor, is we''re talking about the Legislature here. This is a body which last year couldn''t bring itself to consolidate the campuses of the high-school level Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus and the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven -- something incredibly easy politically, compared to consolidating universities. Legislators may well continue to appease the MUW denialists, no matter the cost, even with the economy in the tank. 


Yet the evidence continues to mount against MUW that legislators and the College Board will move to merge the universities. 


As Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said in an Associated Press report a few weeks ago, "Consolidation has been talked about every year that I''ve been in education ... Those talks haven''t gone very far, but we face very different economic circumstances." 


Rep. George Flaggs, a member of the House budget committee who questions the need for eight Mississippi universities, said in the same report: "I''m looking at the facts; we''ve either got to find some new revenue or find somewhere to cut back." 


For now, all are looking toward Barbour and his Monday recommendation, which from here on out will drive the debate over MUW''s future. That''s a fact, no matter how much we''d like to deny it. 



Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment George commented at 11/11/2009 11:32:00 AM:

Well put Steve. Maybe, just maybe, the governor's recommendations will finally wake some of these people up.


Article Comment Ignorance is... commented at 11/11/2009 5:46:00 PM:

First, Steve, do you know how many people 3% of those interested in a school like the W actually is? Only about 50,000 (yes, that's FIFTY THOUSAND)! There's "denial" for you.

Also, I guess Texas Woman's University houses a bunch of idiots. They have multiple campuses, offer degrees up to the doctorate level, and all with that pesky moniker that references females. AMAZING. Look at how they have succeeded in their current level of "denial", bless their hearts.

So take a look and maybe you might begin to understand that what you THINK is denial is actually REALITY. The W is workable, but ADMIN is in denial about what needs to be done. Wake up and smell the coffee, dude.


Article Comment George commented at 11/12/2009 8:18:00 AM:

On the other hand, maybe not. Geez.


Article Comment Kendall Dunkelberg commented at 11/12/2009 8:24:00 AM:

Before pointing the finger of "denialism," Mr. Mullen should examine himself. He seems to be in denial about what a merger of MUW might mean. He doesn't say he is for a merger, but cavalierly advocates change -- anyone who resists it must be in denial, according to his definition of "denialism." Yet change is not always for the better.

Mr. Mullen seems upset that the name change has been eclipsed by Governor Barbour's anticipated proposal to merge MUW. He thinks the W and its alumnae need to get with the program and accept change, yet the W is the vibrant university that it is precisely because of its current mission of providing a small liberal arts and professional university experience to the women and men of this state. Our alumnae and alumni do not need to wake up and smell the coffee; they are wide awake and have been since long before Mr. Mullen arrived on the scene.

Where Mr. Mullen and those like him are in denial is over what a merger might mean. It will not mean business as usual for the W, nor will it mean an influx of students and money to the campus. A merger would be about saving money for the state at the expense of Columbus. A merger would mean faculty, staff, and administrators at MUW would lose their jobs and many would be forced to leave the area. The vibrant cultural life that MUW currently brings the community would not be matched by a satellite campus. I predict that within a few years of a merger, people like Mr. Mullen would notice a gaping hole in the center of this town. What effect would this have on Columbus's ability to attract new businesses?

Rather than pointing the finger at MUW and telling us, "I told you so," Mr. Mullen would serve this community better by investigating the true costs a merger might have on Columbus and writing editorials in support of MUW and its mission to educate the women and men of Mississippi.


Article Comment Fred commented at 11/12/2009 12:20:00 PM:

There is a gaping hole in the center of Columbus. It is called MUW.


Article Comment George commented at 11/12/2009 12:52:00 PM:

"Mr. Mullen should examine himself..."

When all else fails, attack the messenger huh?

Some of these folks would deny that the sky is blue on a bright, clear day!


Article Comment LadyBee commented at 11/12/2009 1:23:00 PM:

Has anyone done any type of analysis to see if this merger would actually save money? Or is it like Daylight Savings Time: It is sounds like it would save money, so it must? Last year someone finally got around to checking the "saving" of Dayligh Savings Time and it actually costs more than staying on regular time. Read about it here: I say find out if there will really be any savings before doing something as drastic as merger.


Article Comment KJ commented at 11/13/2009 11:37:00 AM:

What we know about Dr. LImbert is about what we know about Sarah Palin: nothing. "Undertook a detailed and exhaustive name change process?" Well, she says so. But what does that mean, really? We're talking about the administration that can't discuss personnel matters until they suddenly can. We're talking about an administration that believes in secrets instead of daylight.

It's difficult to pin the blame on "denialists" when you've got one running the institution.


Article Comment Frank commented at 11/13/2009 1:50:00 PM:

"But what does that mean, really?"

The study was published. Go read it.


Article Comment Dave commented at 11/17/2009 4:32:00 PM:

Mr. Dunkelberg refers to the "W" as vibrant. Empty buildings and a sparsly populated campus do not a vibrant university make. I private institution might have the luxury of that kind of vibrancy; a public institution does not.


Article Comment Sarah commented at 11/20/2009 3:15:00 PM:

Dave, have you been to the W lately, while classes were in session and not during a summer or holiday break? I don't know what empty buildings you're talking about.

If you listen to public radio, maybe you should get tickets to Michael Feldman's Whad'ya Know? taping at MUW's Rent Auditorium. Then you can see first hand how wrong you are and support what is truly a vibrant university in the middle of a beautiful town.


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