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‘The W’ Will Remain Mississippi University for Women as Renaming Efforts Fail a Second Time

A large crowd of people gather in the steps of a brick building. Signs that read The W flank them.
The name “Mississippi University for Women” will remain as the bill to rename the university appears to lack enough lawmaker support. Photo courtesy MUW

Mississippi University for Women will remain just that after efforts to change the name to a more inclusive one have failed two times. With a bill still pending approval in the House Universities and Colleges Committee, Mississippi University for Women President Nora Miller sent a letter to alumni stating that the university was placing a “strategic pause” on the name-change process.

“While we remain committed to a future name change,” Miller stated in the letter, “we will regroup and re-examine our processes, ways of engaging our alumni base, and the many needs surrounding finding a name that captures the unique history as well as the contemporary qualities of our university.”

On Feb. 14, MUW alumnus and Mississippi House Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, sent a bill to the House Universities and Colleges Committee. House Bill 1155 supports amending the name to “The W” with official documents listing it as Wynbridge State University of Mississippi. Miller told the Mississippi Free Press that although lawmakers agreed to introduce the bill to make the change official, they did not seem to have the support for legislation to be successful.

“I believe we would have had the votes in the committee, but we wouldn’t have had the votes on the floor,” Miller said on Feb. 22.

A Fraught Process

The process of changing the name of MUW has been fraught with difficulties and dissension. After an 18-month process, Miller first announced Mississippi Brightwell University as the school’s new proposed name during spring convocation on Jan 8. Backlash quickly ensued as alumni and some state lawmakers protested the name. Twitter threads even referred the task force to the Urban Dictionary in a show of the name’s inappropriateness.

In response, Miller placed the first pause on the change. The Naming Task Force went back to the drawing board eliminating Brightwell and soliciting new name options from the public. Within a week, the task force had whittled the names down to three and sent a survey to alumni with explanations of each choice’s meaning. Recipients were asked for feedback on how those names fit the idea of the university.

Mississippi University for Women President Nora Miller speaks at the podium. A sign beside her reads The W. Wynbridge State University of Mississippi
Wynbridge State University is the new proposed name for the Mississippi University for Women, President Nora Miller, pictured, announced on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Heather Harrison

Ahead of the second announcement, MUW released videos of students, faculty, alumni and city officials discussing the importance of the name change. Miller then announced Wynbridge State University of Mississippi as the new suggested name. Flanked by posters signifying the university’s commitment to hold true to the university’s nickname “The W,” Miller told those gathered during the Feb. 14 press conference the new name represented the history, mission and vision of the university.

“The first part of the name, Wyn, is old English for the letter W. And the latter part, bridge, connects the past to the future, connects our alumni to our students and connects our campus to the community,” she said.

That name didn’t stick, either.

Receding Tide of Student Enrollment

Many see dropping the word “women” from the name as necessary for the small-town university to survive. MUW has increased recruitment efforts in recent years as enrollment has declined. A Nov. 2, 2023, university release reported that this year’s enrollment decreased by 4.8% and male students make up less than 20% of the school’s student population. Earlier this year, an excited Miller said that a more inclusive name could boost recruitment.

“A lot of times we go to college fairs and students won’t even make eye contact with us,” Miller told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 5. “Guys may not realize we’ve been coeducational for 40 years. The name just turns them off. And then 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.”

A letter from Nora Miller
Read Mississippi University for Woman President Nora Miller’s letter to alumni regarding the university’s name here. Image courtesy MUW

The university is also battling the “enrollment cliff.” Because birth rates began a downward trend in 2008 with the start of the recession, the resulting match means fewer traditional age students starting college. Universities, which have been watching the trend, are now working to make themselves more attractive to prospective students.

“Competition is getting really tough because all across the country people know that there are fewer of these traditional-age students,” Miller said. “Everybody is trying to get as many students as they can that meet (the) criteria.”

“The W” has made significant strides to make itself a viable competitor. The university has begun purchasing more student information from ACT, invested in customer-management software that tracks students from the time that they first inquire about the institution all the way through the enrollment funnel, and created an executive director of enrollment management position.

The school even brought back sports during the 2017-2018 school year and now has more than 200 athletes from across the state and country. Sports represented at MUW include basketball, baseball and softball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, cross country, track and field, and golf.

“Out of our two hundred plus athletes, I would imagine without sports, we might have gotten 50 or so of those students who live locally,” she said. “So it’s been a good attraction for out- of- state and for other students.”

MUW just opened a new state-of-the-art culinary facility and is the only university in Mississippi to offer a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. It offers a myriad of online learning programs and boasts the second-lowest tuition of any school in the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning system.

“But it remains difficult to recruit with the name ‘Mississippi University for Women,’” Miller said.

The exterior of a building on MUW campus
Mississippi University for Women began holding classes last fall in a new $18-million culinary facility. The university is the only one in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. Photo courtesy Tyler Wheat, MUW Communications

“The W” faces tough competition. Less than an hour away is East Mississippi Community College’s Golden Triangle campus. In 2009, the community college announced its district-wide tuition guarantee program. The program, which offers free tuition to students in seven surrounding counties who meet certain academic requirements, created a significant uptick in enrollment. EMCC offers more than 20 career-technical programs at the Golden Triangle campus including an associate’s degree in nursing. The college also partners with area high schools to provide tuition-free dual-credit enrollment courses.

A bit further down Highway 45 is Mississippi State University.

“Larger research institutions can out-scholarship us, and so we need to be as competitive as possible,” Miller said. “… They have different ways of engaging.”

‘Taking a Breath’

This is not the first time MUW has attempted to change its name. In 2009, President Claudia Limbert proposed changing the name to Reneau University. Sallie Reneau had written to the Mississippi governor in the mid-19th century to propose a public college for women. Her political efforts helped create the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls, founded in 1884 as the first publicly supported college for women in the United States.

Miller said the university will not attempt another change during this legislative session. Instead, it will continue conversations with alumni and community members. The task force plans to host town-hall meetings across the state to allow more voices to be heard.

“We’re still at it,” Miller said. “We’re taking a pause, but we’re not giving up on it. We’re going to keep moving forward. We are just taking a breath before revisiting it again for next year.”

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