Bill Crawford: Mississippi State University for Women

November 17, 2009 10:51:00 AM



The ex-MUW Alumnae Association must think the sky is falling. First came their nasty divorce from the university. Then, the unwanted name change recommendation by President Claudia Limbert, the College Board, and the Mississippi Economic Council. Now, Gov. Haley Barbour has put merger back on the table!?! 


I find myself reluctant to comment on this, given my history. But Dispatch publisher Birney Imes encouraged me, so here goes. 


In the summer of 1984, fellow freshman legislator (now federal judge) Mike Mills and I, concerned about costs in higher education, passed an amendment to a special appropriation. It, in effect, forced the College Board to study consolidation and reorganization of MUW and Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU). In 1987, the College Board recommended closing the two schools, but the Legislature ignored that recommendation. 


Then, from 1992 through 1999, as a member of that very College Board, I actively participated in Ayers case proceedings wherein we first recommended closure and, later, merger of both schools. The federal court rejected those recommendations. 


Here''s something most do not know and it has been true since 1972. If I could work at any university and live in any town of my choosing, I would choose MUW and Columbus. It''s the combination of history and place that attracts me...and persuades me to offer the following thoughts. 


What attracts me, unfortunately, does not attract enough students to The W.  


A comprehensive marketing study of MUW conducted when the 21st Century began found the mix of the women''s name, limited programs of study, and extracurricular activities uninviting to most potential female students and unattractive to most potential male students outside the Columbus area. The W''s inability to recruit students has placed funders in an awkward position. To maintain programs, facilities, and staff, the W required more funding per student than other universities. The College Board recently began to trim this over-funding, placing The W''s future in jeopardy. 


Thus, President Limbert, who in 2003 rejected the name change, came forward last year with the, apparently, unpopular recommendation to change the name to Reneau University - part of a new MUW 20/20 Vision. The calamity is that with declining funds and no significant endowment, The W will be hard pressed to change its image, build a new and attractive mix of programs, and fund scholarships for a new breed of students. 


So, I find Governor Barbour''s recommendation to retain the campus but merge administrative functions into Mississippi State to be a best, last hope for The W. How in the world can I say that? 


Consider these things: 1) fast-growing MSU needs space to grow and the nearby W campus provides that, i.e., the Columbus student population would grow; 2) MSU can immediately add programs from its comprehensive array, while an independent W needs College Board approval and special funds to do so; 3) MSU can offer students access to intercollegiate sports and other extracurricular activities that The W cannot; 4) MSU can maintain a "women''s emphasis" program unique to the Columbus campus. 


And, finally, MSU can provide a way to keep The W heritage alive. Columbus campus students could be given the choice to graduate from "Mississippi State University for Women" or "Mississippi State University." (The special Radcliffe-Harvard diplomas offered 1963-77 provide a model for this.) 


Edwards Demming said, "It is not necessary to change; survival is not mandatory." Eldridge Cleaver said, "Change or die." What will those who care most about the W say now? 


Bill Crawford, a long-time activist in Mississippi government, runs a non-profit organization in Meridian. His e-mail address is [email protected]