MUW name-change appears dead

COLUMBUS — A legislative effort to give Mississippi University for Women a gender-neutral name appears dead this session.

The Senate Universities and Colleges Committee took no vote on the bill that would have given the state College Board the authority to rename the school. That killed the bill, since it wouldn’t meet today’s legislative deadline.

Opponents of the proposal claimed victory.

“Now that this talk of changing the name is finished, we will be allowed to thrive,” said Jan McSpadden of Ridgeland, an MUW alumna who traveled to the Capitol on Monday for the committee hearing.

Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said no university name-change bill was filed in the House.

“That’s the end of that,” Davis said.

However, lawmakers sometimes find ways to revive issues that appear to be dead. It’s unclear whether any such attempt will be made later on the politically contentious MUW discussion.

Outgoing MUW President Claudia Limbert announced in August that a new name — Reneau University — had been chosen for the Columbus campus. The name was selected to honor Sallie Eola Reneau, an alumna who more than 150 years ago urged the governor to establish the first state-funded college for women in the United States.

Supporters of the change have said it’s needed to keep MUW viable. The school, with an enrollment of just over 3,000 last fall, is the smallest in the state. Founded in 1884, MUW began admitting men in 1982 after a court challenge.

Opponents of the bill have said marketing techniques — not the name — need to be changed.

Sen. Billy Hudson, a Purvis Republican who retired from Hudson Salvage after a successful career as chief executive officer, said if he had a “sick business” the last thing he would do is change the name.

“I believe this is a leadership issue, not a name issue,” Hudson said.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds was disappointed the committee didn’t approve the bill so it could move to the full Senate for a vote. Bounds said millions of dollars have been cut from MUW’s budget in the face of declining state revenue collections.

“I’m one who believes that a name change will help it become more competitive. I don’t know if it will save (MUW),” Bounds told the committee.

After the committee meeting, Bounds said, “We have to go back to the drawing board.”

Betty Lou Jones, a 1966 MUW graduate, said she’s a member of a group of alumnae working on private fundraising for the school. She also said there’s a push for more courses.

Jones said there were more pressing issues facing MUW, including the state’s budget situation and the search for a replacement for Limbert.

“The majority of us realize there’s more to be lost than gained by taking action,” Jones said.

The hearing drew dozens of MUW graduates on both sides of the debate, as well as economic development leaders. Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson spoke in support of the name change. Wilson has said increasing the school’s enrollment would have a positive impact on the local economy.

After the bill died, Wilson said the debate over changing MUW’s name has been ongoing for several years.

“It’s got to be resolved at some point,” Wilson said.

The bill is Senate Bill 2702.

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