Steve Mullen: A cold day for The W

January 6, 2010 9:50:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


It''s fitting that the Legislature is convening on what is predicted to be the coldest week of the year -- maybe the coldest week in Mississippi ever. 


To paraphrase the old expression, we knew it would be a cold, cold day when the Legislature would consider some of the things that are on its plate. 


Draconian layoffs of state employees. Huge cuts to education, and the possibility of consolidating some school districts. Raising taxes -- oops, I meant raising fees, such as steep increases to the cost of car titles and other state services. (Sorry I mentioned the T-word.) 


And topping it off: the idea of merging Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University. 


The proposal, floated by Gov. Haley Barbour in his budget recommendation to the Legislature, doesn''t have much visible support, but that doesn''t mean it''s dead. If the idea were a hospital patient, we might say it has tubes in its nose. Things may not look too good now, but it''s a defibrillator hit away from bouncing back. 


Notice I''m not mentioning the governor''s idea to merge Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State with Jackson State University. That idea, most certainly, is dead. But The W and MSU? There isn''t the same historical and political baggage there, as there is with the historically black universities. 


Even if the idea to merge Mississippi State and MUW turns out to be "dead on arrival," as Columbus'' Republican Rep. Gary Chism likes to say, the fact remains that something has to be done to make the university viable. And I don''t mean more viable -- I mean viable, period. The university, the smallest in the state, will likely face a 25 percent funding cut in the budget that legislators will spend the next six months cobbling together. State Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, suggested Tuesday that consolidation may even be the only way to keep the campus open. 


If the school doesn''t merge, it''s still going to take a punch that will hurt it more than any other school. 


The W, plain and simple, has to grow its student base. It can''t keep slogging along with 2,000-odd students. The university may stagger, weakened, to its feet after this recession, but what about the next one? 


Broken-record time: Mississippi University for Women, which is not a women''s-only university, needs to change its name to something that will attract more students, both male and female. Will a name change fix the school overnight? No, but keeping things the same obviously isn''t working. 




''A valuable resource'' 


MUW alums, at least the ones sanctioned by the university, are mobilizing to convince lawmakers to pass a bill that would give the state College Board the authority to authorize a new name for the school. 


Sadly, when things are down to the wire, they''re still trying to convince local lawmakers. 


"I wanted to let you know that we are working over the next few days to encourage alumni and friends to call our local, Lowndes County legislators and let them know how important it is to change the name of the University," reads an e-mail sent to alums today from Mary Margaret Roberts, executive director of Alumni Relations at the school. "We will soon expand our efforts but want to focus on Lowndes County legislators during the next few days at the beginning of the legislative session." 


These folks should already be convinced. 


In her e-mail, Roberts includes these "talking points" to share with legislators: 


· In order for MUW to be successful and grow its enrollment, the Legislature must give the IHL Board the authority to change the name of the University. A new name that truly and accurately reflects who we are is critical to our efforts to attract more students. 


· While the current name may have served us well in the past, it now alienates up to 97 percent of potential students. Changing the name is the first step in moving the University forward by attracting more students. For more than two decades, a low percentage of girls, about 3-4 percent, says they would "consider" a women''s college, and a much lower percentage actually ends up attending one, according to a Vanderbilt University study,  


· More students enrolled at MUW will help both the local economy and state economy. A filled seat means more money coming in locally and to the state. 


· The University is a valuable resource, and we certainly do not want to see another Mary Holmes College-type decline in our area under our local legislators'' watch. We do not want MUW to starve to death, and we need our local legislators to be our champions on the name change issue. 


· Some people claim we have not marketed the university properly to attract students and would increase enrollment if we marketed nationally. We requested data to determine the number of students nationwide who took the ACT and scored between 20 and 24 who would be interested in attending an institution of 1,000 and 5,000 students serving primarily females, and the result was only six students from the nationwide pool of those scoring 20-24 on the ACT. 


· While there has been talk of a merger with MSU, this is not a good option for us. MSU is facing budget cuts of at least $40 million. How would MSU possibly be able to invest funds to operate a second campus in Columbus? 


· Changing the name of MUW to attract all students is what is needed in order for enrollment to grow and for the University in our community to thrive. 


All these points are sound. I''d add another, less logical, more psychological one: Columbus itself is on the ropes right now. Tax revenue is down. We''re losing population; Starkville has surpassed us as the largest city in the Golden Triangle, according to Census estimates. Columbus has been the seat of an independent state university for 125 years now. For this city to lose that, and to be handed a satellite campus of Mississippi State, or worse -- an empty, crumbling campus -- would be a devastating blow to the city''s psyche. 




Think about baseball 


I know an old guy, from Chicago, who used to be a huge Cubs fan -- the same Cubs that haven''t won a World Series in 101 years. 


Like most Cubs fans, he began each season hopeful, and by the All-Star break, he was disgusted. 


After decades of this, he had an epiphany. His typical refrain: Cut down the ivy in the outfield -- get rid of it. Heck, knock down Wrigley Field. Don''t just fire the manager, fire the whole team. Change the team name. Change the uniforms. His reasoning: You can either be the lovable losers, and bask in the familiar, lovable trappings that go with it, or you can show the world that you''re serious about winning. 


It''s tough to admit, but he has a point. 


I say that to say this: The W, and those that want to see it grow and thrive as an independent university, need to prove to the state that they''re serious about survival. There is no clearer way to prove this than with a name change -- a commitment to grow, with a new identity, and a fresh start.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.