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MUW Began As A College for ‘White Girls.’ It’s Rebranding Again As ‘Brightwell.’

Mississippi University for Women campus sign
Mississippi University for Women President Nora Miller announced “Mississippi Brightwell University” as the Columbus, Miss., university’s proposed new name during the school’s Jan. 8, 2024, convocation. Pending legislative action, it could become the official name effective July 1, 2024. It will be the university’s fourth name. Photo courtesy Mississippi University for Women

Mississippi University for Women could soon have a new name after President Nora Miller announced a proposal during the university’s convocation Monday morning: “Mississippi Brightwell University,” referring to both “light” and “wellness.”

“We decided to go with something that would tie in with our traditions, with our history and with our mission,” Miller told the Mississippi Free Press Friday. “Our motto is ‘We study for light to bless with light.’ … It’s the light of knowledge. Wellness has been an important part of our history.”

Miller said the name change is necessary to rebrand the school’s image to reflect inclusivity and improve its standing in the current economic climate. She hopes to develop programs to attract and educate students for the local manufacturing industry. The president said the new name will take effect July 1 pending legislative action.

“Guys may not realize we’ve been coeducational for 40 years, and the name just turns them off,” Miller said. “Women who may not be interested in the single-sex institution, they’re not looking at us, either. We just need a name that will let us talk about who we are and to have our elevator speech not be about what we’re not, but be about all the good things that we have to offer.”

The Mississippi Legislature is responsible for the names and missions of public Mississippi universities. The Legislature could act on the name change in the current legislative session, which began this month and ends in April.

Focusing More on the Brand

Nora Miller, the university’s first alumni president, has led the school since 2018 and has served since 2001 in various roles at MUW, including senior vice president for administration and chief financial officer. She began leading the work to study a name change in 2022, creating a Naming Task Force and engaging the marketing communications firm of Chernoff Newman to “assist the university in defining a clear brand identity, to help select a new name that reflects that identity, and to establish a plan to market that brand identity.” The firm surveyed university stakeholders to guide the process.

A banner sign that reads Mississippi Brightwell University
“The rebrand is intended to better mirror the university’s current vision, mission and the dynamic times we are living in, providing a more apt representation of our diverse and vibrant student body,” said President Nora Miller in a press release announcing a proposed name change for the Mississippi University for Women. Courtesy Mississippi University for Women

“They helped us with … focusing more on the brand, who we are (and) what we are before getting into the name,” Miller said. “It was really encouraging to hear that throughout all of those groups, it came across that we are empowering. We are supportive. We are forward thinking, forward leaning. All of those things that really capture who we are.”

Miller said the university decided against a geographic or a regional name because the administration believed those names would not capture the unique qualities of the institution, and people could confuse them with the state’s community colleges. They also decided not to go with a historic or a family name—which could end up with a negative connotation.

“You don’t know what happened a few generations ago, what might happen a few generations from now,” Miller said.

MUW was originally chartered in 1884 as the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls with a mission to provide higher education in the arts and vocational training in skills then considered practical for women. It was the first publicly funded college for women in the nation and exclusively operated for whites for 82 years. An existing private school, Columbus Female Institute, provided space for the college. 

Drawing of I.I. & C. from 1885. On right is an image of the college's dedication in 1885 and left is Callaway Hall (built in 1847 and used as dorms and classrooms) with the addition of Orr Chapel.
Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls, shown in this 1885 drawing, absorbed the former private Columbus Female Institute. The school changed its name to Mississippi State College for Women in 1920 and to its current moniker of Mississippi University for Women in 1974. Illustration Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1885 / Columbus-Lowndes Public Library

In 1920, the name changed to Mississippi State College for Women and then to Mississippi University for Women in 1974. Through each of these name changes, the school remained dedicated to its mission of education for Mississippi white women. The college still did not accept Black women until 1966 when six women—Diane Hardy, Laverne Green and Barbara Turner, Jacqueline Edwards, Mary Flowers and Eula Houser desegregated The W. 

In 1982, Joe Hogan was denied enrollment in MUW’s nursing program. He sued, claiming that because public dollars funded the school, he had a right to attend regardless of his gender. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that “denying otherwise qualified males (such as the respondent) the right to enroll” violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Due to the ruling, MUW opened all its academic programs to men. 

‘Our Alumni Are Very Passionate’

The discussion over changing the university’s name has been ongoing for more than a decade. Darrell Glenn and David Turner filed a lawsuit in 1988 to force a name change. Many “W” alumni, students, faculty and administration strongly opposed the change. In November 1989, U.S. District Court Judge Glen Davidson dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs had not been personally discriminated against.

Fouth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students for the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of Mississippi
Mississippi University for Women was founded in 1884 as Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls. The college remained segregated until 1966 and began admitting men in 1982. Photo courtesy Mississippi University for Women

Former MUW President Claudia Limbert proposed changing the name to Reneau University in 2008 to honor Sallie Reneau. Reneau, at 18 years old, wrote to the Mississippi governor in the mid-19th century to propose a public college for women. Supporters cited the university’s economic instability. However, tensions between the president and alumni association derailed the process.

“It’s going to take people a while to get used to this. It’ll take them a while to warm up to it. Our alumni are very passionate,” Miller said. “We may not always agree, but I think we can always agree on how special this institution is.”

The biggest decision was not to go with a “W” name. 

“The W for us stands for women, and that’s important,” Miller said. “We’re not going to just grasp for a w word to be able to continue being the W, so that’s that’s a tough one for some people to swallow.”

MUW Alumni Association President Heather Fasciocco Stone said that she understands that the move will garner some resistance, but the association supports the efforts to expand the university’s legacy. 

“Our alums love this university, its rich history and traditions. Change is always hard, and there will be some grieving, but we’ve navigated this type of change before,” Stone said. “We’ve always come out stronger, and the thing we want more than anything is to lengthen the Long Blue Line for generations to come. And this announcement moved us toward that place.”

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