Birney Imes: Georgia school offers example for MUW

November 21, 2009 10:07:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


In 1889 the state of Georgia established in Milledgeville the Georgia Normal and Industrial College to prepare young women for secretarial and teaching jobs. (Five years earlier the Industrial Institute and College, the first state supported school for women in the country, was established in Columbus, Miss.) 


By 1917 the Georgia school began to offer four-year degrees and in 1922 the name was changed to Georgia State College for Women. Courses now included psychology, home economics, English, math, art, science, recreation and music. (In 1920, II&C in Columbus changed its name to Mississippi State College for Women to reflect its expanded curriculum.) 


Enrollment continued to grow and by the 1930s GSCW had more than 1,500 students. 


In 1942 noted Southern writer Flannery O''Connor enrolled as a freshman and graduated three years later. Her papers are housed in the special collections area of the school''s library. (Eudora Welty attended MSCW in 1926 and 1927.) 


After World War II, enrollment plummeted at GSCW and by 1953 the school had less than 600 students, according to Bob Wilson, chair of the history department and school historian. "The girls wanted to go where the boys were," Wilson explained. 


The 50s brought in two new presidents with new ideas and new energy. The second one, Robert E. Lee, thought the school should become coed. Lee was dissuaded of his idea and in 1961 the school''s name was changed to the Women''s College of Georgia. (MSCW''s name was changed to Mississippi University for Women in 1974.) 


Before he retired, Lee realized that a female-only student body was a losing proposition for the school, and in the fall of 1967, 185 men were admitted to the campus of 1,216 females. The school''s name was changed to Georgia College at Milledgeville; four years later the name was shortened to Georgia College. (MUW resisted the enrollment of men until 1982 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it should admit Joe Hogan, a nursing student. The school''s name was not changed, and alumni continue to resist a name change.) 


Wilson, who came to the Georgia school in 1987, says he is not aware of any outcry about the school going coed and the subsequent name change. What resistance there was, he said, came from the female faculty who were not "wild about having men as students." 


The move was good for the school; by 1975 enrollment had grown to 3,770. 


Two events of lasting consequence happened in the 1990s during the presidency of Edwin G. Speir, Jr. A businessman, Speir didn''t like the way the alumni office was run. He seized control of the alumni house and fired a popular alumni director. (MUW President Claudia Limbert did the same thing in 2006 with equally disastrous results.) 


"To this day they are still angry," says Wilson of the school''s alumni. "They still freeze up when the issue comes up," he said of the school''s Atlanta alumni chapter.  


The school''s female alumnae are much more supportive of the school than its male graduates, Wilson says. "Most of the bequests are from the old girls." 


In 1995 British born Stephen Portch, then president of the Georgia university system, visited the school. Portch felt that Georgia should have a public liberal arts institution -- a public ivy -- and thought the Milledgeville campus, with its well-preserved historic architecture, was just the place. 


A word about that campus: Viewing pictures on the school''s Web site a less-than-careful researcher might confuse the school with Mississippi University for Women. 


With Portch''s guidance -- Portch is responsible for implementing Georgia''s innovative Hope scholarship program -- the school adopted a liberal arts emphasis while retaining its successful business, education and nursing programs. 


"This gave us a special niche," says Wilson. "We emphasize the humanities; we produce students who are highly literate and can think critically, and we have a close relationship between students and faculty." 


The name was changed for the sixth time to Georgia College and State University. 


As the state''s liberal arts university, GCSU began to draw students from more distant reaches. Enrollment now exceeds 6,500. 


The school has hired a new provost, Sandra Jordan, who was most recently at MUW. 


Wilson says campus life is lively. "Almost too lively, sometimes," he says. 


"The students are now demonstratively better," says Wilson. "When I came here we admitted everybody; now we''re selective."  


It''s uncanny, the parallels between Georgia College and State University and Mississippi University for Women. The most obvious difference is how the two schools have dealt with change. GCSU has embraced it and MUW has fought it. GCSU has flourished, and MUW has languished. 


Could MUW become the state''s "public ivy," just as GCSU did in Georgia? A new mission and a new mindset, a name change and dynamic leadership could transform our beautiful little campus on College Street. 


Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]

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