Birney Imes: Embracing name change

August 8, 2009 9:54:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


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.