Birney Imes: A call for unity

October 24, 2009 8:34:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Our Wednesday editorial on name change at Mississippi University for Women has drawn a flurry of online responses from many of the usual suspects. In that editorial, we again urged lawmakers and the public to proceed with a name change and to go with Reneau University, the name chosen through a long and painstaking process. 


In response, Helen Pridmore, who is not one of the usual suspects, wrote an eloquent letter expressing her concerns that the school she can see from her front porch will soon be shuttered. As a business owner in a small town, Pridmore says she is reluctant to ruffle feathers but has been silent long enough.  


She writes, "Contrary to what these three men (Reps. Jeff Smith and Gary Chism and Sen. Terry Brown) think, there happens to be a lot of support for Reneau University from us "silent" alumni. The truth is  


that a lot of us live and work here in Columbus, and we are too darn busy trying to make a living to rip off letter after letter to make our case. 


"Yes, we mumble under our breath as we read every bitter diatribe opposing the new name. Of course the name should be changed." 


On the other hand, one respondent, an alumna who has "ripped off" many letters, wrote that a name change would be the death knell for the school. 


Will changing the name to Reneau University cause one student to reject The W? I don''t think so. Does the current name with its "for Women" repel students? Decidedly so. The W is no longer a women''s college, folks. Hasn''t been since 1982. That The W needs a gender-neutral name is so obvious, it seems ridiculous that we''re still talking about it. 


Gary Chism, I hope you''re paying attention. 


The W, as we know it, is in a precarious position, name change or no. The future of the school may well be in jeopardy, and it''s past time to stop bickering about what should have been done years ago. 


There are those who have said they would rather see the school disappear than lose its "W." Those people may be closer to getting their wish than they realize.  


"All the bickering has done more to harm The W than anything else," wife Beth, a W alumna, said last week. 


No one who has thought about it, is arguing that a gender-neutral name will fix all that ails the school.  


"Mississippi State University at Columbus," a coworker recently suggested. MSU interim President Vance Watson, before "Treegate," told a local business leader he would love have the room provided by moving the MSU''s fine art department to The W campus. 


"The W has had to fight for its survival before," an older alum countered when I mentioned MSUC. Yes, but then the alumni was marching in lockstep behind a dynamic president. Today the alumni, the more influential ones, are so fixated by their opposition to name change, they can think of little else.  


The school has a lame-duck president; it faces unprecedented and what look to be long-term financial challenges and it has a splintered legislative delegation. The easy thing for the IHL to do ... well, you figure it out. 


Most of the people I talk to have had enough of the alumnae squabble; they''ve long ago tuned to other channels. They may appreciate the economic impact of the school, but the close connection that once existed between town and tower is now faint. 


The school has plenty going for it: a strong faculty, low student-teacher ratios, a lovely campus and a quality education. That''s not to say it doesn''t have problems and challenges: an ill-defined identity, splintered alumni base and meager on-campus life. Fortunately these problems can be fixed. 


Friday afternoon one of the more outspoken members of the disaffiliated alumnae group stopped by The Dispatch to talk. Other than changing the name, our hopes for the school are the same. Foremost we want The W to survive and flourish. We think it could as a fine liberal arts college, on the model of a Millsaps, Rhodes or Sewanee. Continue strong programs like nursing and bolster an already strong humanities division. 


Before this can happen, the school, legislative delegation, alumni and community must join hands. We need to change the name to Reneau University and move on. There are other, more daunting challenges out there. 


Birney Imes is editor and publisher of The Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]

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