Birney Imes: A turnaround at The W

April 20, 2013 10:44:43 PM

Birney Imes - birney@cdispatch.com

 

"I'd call it a miracle," a W alumna was saying Saturday afternoon. She was talking about the love fest going on at her alma mater this weekend. Anyone who endured the dark days of a few years back, when alumni had taken to the barricades and there was talk of merger with State, would have to agree. 

 

Since taking the reins January a year ago, the Mississippi University for Women president has made undeniable progress resolving problems that beset the school. Prominent among them were disaffected alumni, lack of clear identity and a muddled vision for the school's future. 

 

Friday morning at a breakfast meeting of city leaders and MUW administration Borsig made an convincing case for optimism for the grand old lady that's been an essential part of the local landscape for almost 130 years. 

 

It wasn't just rah rah for the home team either. The president's 20-minute presentation was peppered with facts and figures, the big one being enrollment. Nationally, enrollment in post-secondary education has declined for the first time in 30 years, he said. That makes The W's 2.3-percent increase this spring all the more cause for enthusiasm.  

 

The face of education is changing, he said. "Anyone been in a record store lately?" he asked. "A video rental store?"  

 

The W is competing nationally for online students. 

 

While he didn't bring up the once-divisive issue of name change and no one asked about it, he laid out a case for it. 

 

"We are a coed institution, point blank," he said.  

 

Tempering that, Borsig went on to say, "We are historically a women's institution with a women's mission." Adding, "The W is the first public woman's college in the U.S., maybe in the world." 

 

Citing Noel-Levitz, an educational consultant, Borsig said enrollment in women's colleges is rapidly falling. And, really, someone couldn't be faulted for thinking Mississippi University for Women is a women's school, right? 

 

Presently, The W's enrollment is about 20 percent male. Borsig hopes to see that number climb to 30 percent. 

 

As he's said more than once since taking the job, "I'm not afraid to have a messy conversation." In an interview with this newspaper shortly after being named president, Borsig said about name change: "The university can't avoid having that conversation." 

 

And that is one of the qualities that distinguished Jim Borsig from his predecessors: He's willing to have an open conversation with stakeholders. 

 

One conversation Borsig has initiated is the reinstatement of athletics at the school. Many alums are thrilled by that possibility. 

 

One of those is Barbara Garrett, Class of '56.  

 

"We're so grateful," Garrett says of Borsig. "He really loves The W and has done all he's said he's going to do. We're very pleased." 

 

Garrett has seen presidents come and go. She was a student at The W when Charles P. Hogarth assumed the presidency for what would become The W's golden age -- or at least one of them. 

 

After completing post graduate work at Duke and working as a physical therapist at Vanderbilt and the University of Alabama, Garrett returned to her alma mater to teach kinesiology in '67. She intended to stay a year, but didn't get away until '94 when she retired from The W to write a book on non-verbal communication for caregivers. 

 

"Even at social events he stays and lingers," Garrett says of Borsig. "He's so knowledgeable ... and down to earth." 

 

Very early on Borsig said about The W: "I've fallen in love with this school." 

 

Talk to alumni, who have flooded the campus this weekend for homecoming, and you quickly realize the feeling is mutual. 

 

Those who have some history with the school know, given the right circumstances, namely the right leadership, falling in love with The W is not a hard thing to do. Though for some, that love had waned in recent years. And during those bleak years, many -- myself included -- worried about The W's survival. 

 

Jim Borsig has vanquished those fears. For that we should all be grateful. 

 

Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at birney@cdispatch.com. 

 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.