Steve Mullen: Let them eat cake

February 3, 2010 9:48:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


Rep. Gary Chism told a story on a talk radio program a couple months ago, shortly after the governor released his proposed budget that called for The W to merge with Mississippi State University. 


The W will always be safe, Chism explained, because each year, the little old ladies from the Alumnae Association bring cakes down to the Capitol to all the legislators. In turn, they secure the promise that "nothing will happen" to The W.  


The Legislature, apparently, can''t say no to cake. 


I don''t know what they''re baking into those cakes, but whatever it is, it works. Our lawmakers in Jackson scarfed them down and declared the merger idea "dead on arrival" before the session began. Then, apparently still affected by alumnae sugar, they did the same thing to the university''s name change proposal, which would have helped The W build a viable student body. 


Give points to Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, for at least giving each side its day in court, even if the outcome had already been decided. He brought the name change bill he authored -- which would have allowed the College Board to decide on the change -- up for committee discussion on Monday. After hearing from leaders for the name change, and alumnae who oppose it, no one on the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee would make a motion to move the bill along. 


By doing nothing, the Legislature slammed the door on years of research, hundreds of hours of time, and thousands of dollars spent making the case for a name change.  


The need for a name change should be obvious. The W isn''t a women''s-only university, and hasn''t been since 1982. Even if we pretended it was, it isn''t even the only university in the state with a mission to educate on women''s issues. Southern Miss, Ole Miss and Mississippi State all offer robust women''s or gender-studies programs, as does the nearby University of Alabama.  


We know this stuff by heart by now. Not only do few-to-no male students want to attend a women''s college, 97 percent of graduating high school won''t consider doing so either, according to a study oft-cited by MUW President Claudia Limbert. And because of the name, the perception is that this is a women''s university. 


Clearly, this is the way the vehement supporters of The W''s current identity want it. They see the university as it was in 1981, or ''71 or ''61, or years earlier. If only we had a strong president at the helm, and ignore the fact that we admit men, and come up with a better marketing campaign (presumably targeting the 3 percent of women nationwide who might consider a women''s-only college, something The W isn''t anyway), then all would be right with the world. 


But these arguments have fallen on deaf ears; no sense wasting more breath, or ink. The cakes have been baked and delivered. The Legislature has made its decision -- a decision not to make one. 




What''s next? 


Now that the Legislature has sided with the no-name-change alumnae, where does The W go from here? Deeper into a period of belt-tightening uncertainty. 


The W is increasing tuition 10 percent over the next two years, to offset what''s shaping up to be a 25-percent cut in its budget over the same time period. Some leaders inside and outside the Legislature wonder if the school can even keep the lights turned on. It will find a way, but The W''s biggest selling points -- cheap tuition and a low student-teacher ratio -- are in danger here. 


Even amid the budget crunch, I just don''t see a merger with Mississippi State happening. If you''re a freshman enrolling in MSU, you want to be on the main campus. You want to be in the shadow of Davis-Wade Stadium, living in the dorms on campus, or in the fraternity and sorority houses. You want to be sipping Starbucks in the union. If you''re a junior or senior or grad student, you''re living off campus, not in a dorm at The W. Some have suggested Mississippi State could run buses between the two campuses. Really? 


So how does The W become viable? Maybe there will be some seismic cultural shift that will send scores of women back to women''s universities. Or there will be some equally dramatic occurrence in the Legislature that would cause the name change bill to come up again, and then pass through committees, and make it off both floors, and get signed by the governor. Or maybe the school will see its enrollment slip further over the next decade or two, until there is no choice but closure. The alumni will have finally "loved it to death," as some officials say. 


Whether the name change comes up again in next year''s legislative session or not, Limbert won''t be here for alumnae to kick around anymore. She''s retiring, much to their delight. Maybe next time they''ll get the strong leader with the marketing savvy they''ve been dreaming of.  


Whoever takes the job, we know she will be someone who loves a challenge. She will find a school in financial crisis, shackled to an outdated identity. She will have to pacify an influential group of alumnae who fiercely opposed the last president, and will certainly do the same to the next one if they don''t get their way. 


She will know the alumnae know just how to do it -- it''s a cake walk, in fact. Never mind that all The W gets is the crumbs. 


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.