Steve Mullen: Denialism and The W

November 11, 2009 9:59:00 AM

Steve Mullen - smullen@cdispatch.com

 

In his new book "Denialism," author Michael Specter explores how, on occasion, "an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie." 

 

Denialism is all around us. We often ignore reams of evidence, if it contradicts something we find more comfortable or easier to believe. 

 

At Mississippi University for Women, the school wears denialism on its letterhead. The university has admitted men for 17 years, yet many of its most ardent supporters would apparently rather see the university die than change its identity. 

 

The university itself isn''t in denial as much as those who claim to support it. As we know, the current, and perhaps last, president of this university, Dr. Claudia Limbert, undertook a detailed and exhaustive name change process, even as many MUW faithful fought to keep its name and its mission to serve women the same.  

 

The MUW denialists still believe the debate is about either changing the name or keeping the current one, and are becoming more creative to continue framing it that way. A few weeks ago, someone commenting on my column online argued that the name Mississippi University for Women is still viable, because more women attend universities than men. "By trying to change the name to accommodate male students the state would once again be BEHIND the curve instead of ahead of it," this reader asserts. (Never mind, a survey conducted during the name change process found only 3 percent of female high school graduates said they''d even consider attending a single-sex institution. It is the nature of denialists to discount these and other facts.) 

 

A gender-neutral name probably would have given the state''s smallest university a fighting chance for survival -- back in 1982, when the gender barrier was broken, by court order. Those not affected by denialism realize this is when the school needed to make the tough decisions about its identity. 

 

The debate, however, has moved beyond name change to outright survivability. Will the school be a stand-alone institution, or part of another university -- or even open at all? 

 

Gov. Haley Barbour is set to release his Executive Budget Recommendation this Monday -- a proposed budget that will reflect a $600 million cut in spending statewide, even compared to this lean budget year. He has made clear he would push for consolidation among state agencies. 

 

What will Barbour recommend for the state''s universities? He isn''t saying. But those with knowledge of his plans say that if he doesn''t call for an outright closure of MUW, he''ll most certainly advocate its consolidation with Mississippi State University. 

 

A consolidation between the two schools wouldn''t save tons of money. But it would save some. It would also be an investment in Mississippi State''s future, giving it room to grow with new programs and additional classroom space. 

 

The Legislature has been good to MUW denialists over the years. How will the school fare this go-around, as lawmakers wrestle with a state budget that will be $600 million smaller? 

 

Name change aside -- a move that could be moot now anyway -- will lawmakers take the denialist view that MUW can stay its course? Will the College Board move forward with a search for a new university president and all the costs that go along with seating him or her? Or will they follow the governor''s lead, and move to consolidate -- eliminating those expenses? 

 

Working in MUW''s favor, is we''re talking about the Legislature here. This is a body which last year couldn''t bring itself to consolidate the campuses of the high-school level Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus and the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven -- something incredibly easy politically, compared to consolidating universities. Legislators may well continue to appease the MUW denialists, no matter the cost, even with the economy in the tank. 

 

Yet the evidence continues to mount against MUW that legislators and the College Board will move to merge the universities. 

 

As Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said in an Associated Press report a few weeks ago, "Consolidation has been talked about every year that I''ve been in education ... Those talks haven''t gone very far, but we face very different economic circumstances." 

 

Rep. George Flaggs, a member of the House budget committee who questions the need for eight Mississippi universities, said in the same report: "I''m looking at the facts; we''ve either got to find some new revenue or find somewhere to cut back." 

 

For now, all are looking toward Barbour and his Monday recommendation, which from here on out will drive the debate over MUW''s future. That''s a fact, no matter how much we''d like to deny it. 

 

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.