February 10, 2009
Garthia Elena Burnett -
In August 2008, when Dr. Claudia Limbert announced plans to change the name of Mississippi University for Women, it seemed to cut a sharper divide into the already cloven MUW community.
But, for better or worse, and despite strong opposition from the disaffiliated MUW Alumnae Association, the decision stood. And after months of meetings and surveys, MUW''s naming committee slashed a list of 1,000-plus potential names down to three -- Reneau University, Waverley University and Welty-Reneau University.
Now, the names are in a court of public opinion, having been voted on online more than a thousand times since Friday.
And though the Jackson-based Cirlot Agency hasn''t begun to tally the votes yet, focus groups of high school seniors have offered mixed results.
"Of the three focus groups (in Lowndes County and Tupelo), every group chose a different name," said Liza Looser, founder and chief executive officer of the Cirlot Agency, the marketing and public relations firm MUW chose to field test their potential new names.
"It seems to be pretty even, as far as the focus groups go ..."
Representatives from the Cirlot Agency are polling focus groups of about a dozen high school seniors throughout the state, as well as offering additional online surveys to prospective students.
"We gave demographic profiles to make sure there was a balance of male-female and race," Looser said.
Thus far the agency has polled students at five different school districts considered key recruiting areas to MUW -- Columbus, Tupelo, Northwest Mississippi, on the coast and in Jackson.
"We focus our recruitment efforts on the state of Mississippi and some contiguous places outside of Mississippi," said Bucky Wesley, MUW''s vice president of student services.
Those contiguous areas include parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas, he noted.
"There are students here from all parts of the U.S. and 13 countries, so we are certainly recruiting outside of the area. But those are our primary focus areas," Wesley continued.
Members of the public interested in weighing in on one of the university''s three potential names can vote at survey.cirlot.com. A brief background of the names'' origin is available at the site, along with an area to type a brief comment. The voter also is asked to include his or her affiliation with the W.
Looser hopes to present the results of the online polls and the focus groups by mid-March.
"As long as the focus groups are going, we''ll keep the online polls open," she noted.
Since anyone with Internet access can vote in the online poll, input from focus groups likely will be the most useful.
"The discussion has been to allow the students to have the biggest voice, because they are prospective students," said Looser. "So we will lend the biggest weight to (the name) most appealing to the students."
It''s important to find a name those prospective students can "better identify with," she said, noting she hopes to complete the focus group sessions by the first week of March.
"So hopefully within the next three to four weeks we''ll have it all done, and then we''ll start crunching the numbers," Looser said.
Agency representatives spend an hour to an hour and a half presenting the students with names, giving them time to consider the names and have open discussion; finally, the reps take collective votes.
Aside from comments on the three name options for MUW, the Cirlot Agency also has had several e-mails asking for a selection for "none of the above" or "keep the name the same."
To this Looser responds simply, "Our charge is to evaluate the three names submitted by the naming committee. It is not to decide whether or not to change the name or to do a different name altogether."
The decision to change the name, she reminds, has already been made.
Whether Reneau University, Waverley University or Welty-Reneau University, the new name will be the fourth for the historic institution.
MUW was founded as the Industrial Institute and College in 1884 as the first state-supported college for women. In 1920, II&C became Mississippi State College for Women. And in 1974, MUW adopted its current name.
About the names
Sallie Reneau, who proposed establishing a state-supported educational institution to offer equal educational opportunities for women, is considered one of the three founders of the college.
"Waverley University" is taken from the title of Sir Walter Scott''s first novel. The name was proposed by Dr. Thomas Richardson, dean of MUW''s College of Arts and Science, who said it "evokes images of innovation, vision and creativity."
The name honors one of the university''s founding figures, Sallie Reneau, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty, possibly the school''s most well-known and successful former student.