Steve Mullen: Amid wrestling over MUW’s name, the 900-pound tag team in the room

October 28, 2009 11:00:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


As the need to reach a consensus on a new identity for Mississippi University for Women becomes ever more urgent and more dire, I find it pleasing to imagine all the different sides of the debate crowded face to face, in one arena, going at it. I can picture a wrestling ring -- or better yet, a cage match. 


Here they all are: Legislators and business poobahs, MUW administrators, faculty and students. And of course, here in the greatest numbers, are the alumnae, both loyal and exiled. This is a battle royale. The gloves are off. The brass knuckles are on. Mike Tyson would like this -- biting and low blows are accepted, if not encouraged. 


Yet, off in the corner of the arena, is a tag team of two huge dudes no one wants to confront. And these two are here to fight for real. 




Economy and survival 


The first half of this unconfrontable tag team represents economic reality. The worst recession in most of our lifetimes may have ended somewhere else, on paper, but it hasn''t ended here. And higher education is paying the price.  


As the economy continues to deliver sucker punches to the state''s gut, causing us to bleed more and more red ink, Gov. Haley Barbour''s instinct is to lash out at public education, including universities.  


The College Board projected a 5 percent cut this fiscal year. Down the road, a 10-percent cut is expected in 2011 (which could grow) and another whopping 20 percent is expected in 2012. We''re talking about our universities spending 30-40 percent less than they do now, in a few short years. Is that even possible? 


Pair that with the second half of this tag team, who should be feared even more, especially with the bad economy on his team. This guy represents a simple question: Does MUW really even deserve to exist as a stand-alone university? 


Think of it this way: If you came in to Mississippi and started a higher education system from scratch, would you create eight, stand-alone public universities? Each with its own set of chancellors and presidents and provosts and vice chancellors and vice presidents? Each of them fighting for dollars in a state that not only happens to be the nation''s poorest, but one saddled with the nation''s 20th-lowest population and fifth-worst high school graduation rate? 


Would you place the smallest and most vulnerable among them only 25 miles away from the biggest? Then, would you name this tiny coed institution, the one that should be the most desperate to market itself to prospective students, both women and men -- Mississippi University for Women?  




Reality check 


Most people in the state, and in the Legislature, could care less about what happens to MUW. They do care, however, about draconian cuts at the larger, more viable universities, which are supported in greater numbers.  


Push is coming to shove here. Once the big tag-team of economic reality and survival of the fittest enter the ring, they will look around and see that the few people who should be united in fighting for MUW''s survival, are hopelessly mired in bickering among themselves. They''ll wonder: Why should I care about saving it? Especially when the few people who should care about saving it can''t get on the same page? 


In wrestling terms, it will be an easy three-count. 


The irony is, MUW has so much going for it -- more, even, than the other small public universities. It could rename itself Reneau, and sell itself as what it is -- a small, charming coed college, with great teachers and focused programs. It could use its size as its strength, and market itself as an elite, boutique, private-university education at a cheap public price. 


Is that what will happen? Hopefully so. Once we all accept the folly of keeping MUW''s current identity, how can anyone argue that this isn''t MUW''s best shot at survival? 


It won''t happen, however, unless the local community, MUW alums, and all our local legislators unite behind the idea. We''re the ones with the dog in this hunt.  


The tag team of bad economy and sheer survival are now before us. The only way to defeat them is to unite against them. 


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.