No to a merger, yes to a new identity

November 17, 2009 10:51:00 AM



As was widely expected, Gov. Haley Barbour advocated Monday for the merger of Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University.  


And, as we have a half-dozen times before, we advocate The W remain an independent university. 


Barbour isn''t the first to suggest The W close or merge with a larger school. Its size as the smallest state-run university makes it easy pickings, as does its outdated name. 


However, The W has much to offer. We believe, with a new, gender-neutral name and a renewed focus on marketing and recruitment, The W could find a niche and build a student base as a small, charming coed college, with great teachers and focused programs. Using its size as its strength, it could market itself as a provider of a private-university education at a public-school price in an incomparable setting. 


That is what The W has going for it. Sadly, what it doesn''t have going for it is strong leadership, both locally and in the Legislature, to advocate this vision and make it a reality. 


Retiring President Claudia Limbert took the bold move to push through a desperately needed name change for the university. In the process and in previous actions, however, she alienated many of the school''s alumni, some of whom loudly refuse to back a name change. We continue to find this disheartening, even though a new identity is the best chance for the school''s survival, at least as an independent university. 


Understated to a fault, Limbert was unable to sell the name change -- Reneau University -- in a dynamic way to alumni, the public or to state leaders. Limbert must bear the blame for failing to generate any excitement behind what should have resonated as a momentous, historic moment and opportunity to breathe new live into the university. 


Columbus'' and The W''s representation in the Legislature also leaves much to be desired. As a whole, our delegation is fractured and ineffective. While some, like Sen. Terry Brown, recognize the need for a new name and the importance of the school to Lowndes County, others, like W alum Rep. Esther Harrison, remain noncommittal. Rep. Gary Chism wants The W to remain the same -- seemingly content, like the alumni he is taking his cues from, to allow The W to wither into oblivion. 


Some feel that a merger with Mississippi State University would mean thousands of MSU students crowding into The W''s campus. Ask any student enrolling into MSU where he''d rather attend school: Starkville or Columbus. Those students are signing up for Starkville. 


More students would sign up for what The W has to offer -- quiet yet cultured, boutique yet traditional, small class sizes, premium education on the cheap -- if it were marketed as such. Maybe we should also hit the rewind button on the new name -- and this time, sell it with some sizzle that will have prospective students (and the powers that be) taking notice. 


Doing away with a president and other administration at The W will save the state money, Barbour and others argue. But remaining independent will allow The W to maintain control of its own future -- and the cost of having an administration to do so is worth the expense, for Columbus and the Golden Triangle. But strong, visionary leadership is needed during these difficult budgetary times, both in a new school president and in our delegation in Jackson, to bring The W back from the brink and allow Reneau University to rise from the ashes. 


That''s The W''s best shot at a bright future. In the long run, remaining the same isn''t an option -- merger is; a new identity is. The school''s future now rests in the hands of our state and local leadership, and our community. For The W''s sake and the sake of Columbus, we must demand a new, dynamic, independent identity for our university.