January 31, 2009
Name and identity ... identity and name. It''s like the chicken and the egg -- which comes first?
Mississippi University for Women has lived through both sequences -- name first and then identity, and now identity first and then name.
Since its founding in 1884, the university has evolved through three names. The first, Industrial Institute and College, emphasized the college''s dual mission as a liberal arts college and a vocational school.
The next name, selected in 1920, was Mississippi State College for Women. MSCW quickly became shortened to the now legendary nickname, "The W." In 1974, the nickname was carried along as MSCW became Mississippi University for Women.
But MUW''s status as a college for "women only" came to an end in 1982 with the court-ordered admission of its first male student. In recent years, the student body has averaged about 20 percent men.
To acknowledge The W''s changing identity, a concerted effort is now under way to choose a new name. Just as the school''s role in the state''s higher education system has changed, it is inevitable that a fourth name is now needed. A committee has pared the list to three -- Reneau University, Welty-Reneau University and Waverley University.
There also is an unspoken sense that something entirely different could emerge as the final choice. If that should happen, we strongly oppose any name with geographic references, such as Golden Triangle University or Such-and-Such University at Columbus.
Ironically, Waverley University, although a "W" name, has no connection to women nor to the university''s history. It is a nod to Sir Walter Scott''s novel, "Waverley." Although the book has laudable themes, this name has no link to the university and should be rejected.
On the other hand, the other two committee-selected names, Reneau University and Welty-Reneau University, connect with The W''s history and its tradition of enriching the lives of women.
Reneau is for Sallie Reneau, who was the college''s initial champion, so naming the university for her makes sense.
Welty is for Eudora Welty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who began her college career at The W. Although Welty went on to graduate elsewhere, she attended many functions at MUW in her later years, and the school''s administrative office building, Welty Hall, is named for her.
Identity and name are part and parcel of each other, particularly when it comes to a college so dear to the hearts of generations of graduates. To the female alums who would rather keep MUW''s name as it is, we strongly remind them of the inevitability of the change and the need for the university to have a name in keeping with its evolving identity. The alums need to think of the best interests of their alma mater, put aside other agendas and help the school pick the best possible new name.
That name should reflect the school''s history as the first public college for women in the country. Either Reneau University or Welty-Reneau University (if we wish to keep a "W" in the name) achieves those goals.
Besides, both names impart an air of prestige and simply sound like a liberal arts college, which is what our university has always been and should always be.