A name between progress and preservation

Ryan Lake


When Kris Sullivan tells people where he attends college, he gets some odd looks.

“At first, people are like, huh?” he says.

That’s because Sullivan attends Mississippi University for Women – yes, women.

He’s gotten into the habit of launching into a quick explanation that the university also admits male students to avoid the misconceptions the name causes.

“There are men that go to it. You always have to say ‘and men,’ because of the name,” he explains.

Sullivan isn’t alone in his struggle to describe his college choice.

The university, which began accepting men in 1982 after a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced it to change its women-only policy, has yet to change its name. With men now making up 17 percent of the student body, there is a question in the air. Should the name of the university be changed?

The United States Supreme Court decision, Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, forced the school to become co-educational, a decision that was hotly contested. Dr. Bridget Pieschel, then known as Bridget Smith, was on campus during the years leading up to the case and remembers it well.

“The faculty in the 70s was split. We had a lot of liberals who were pro-civil rights movement, pro-feminism; and we had a lot of conservatives. So you had a divided campus, divided administration and divided alums. All across the U.S. people were suing to get into single-gender institutions.”

She sits behind a well-appointed desk covered in small piles of paperwork. The office has all the knick-knacks and books that comes with being in academia for many years. According to Pieschel, Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan became the landmark case that allowed all genders into what were formerly single-gender institutions. However, the issue of the name change was not formally addressed until 2009 under Mississippi University for Women President Claudia Limbert.

Limbert proposed that a new name should be selected to usher in the modern age. Unfortunately, she angered many by not consulting the legislature or the alumni by trying to change the name to Reneau University.  The alumni were not completely against a name change. 

“I’m not tied to the name, I’m tied to the mission. If we’re going to change the name we have to make sure we have enough money, and sound reason for the choice,” states Pieschel, echoing the feelings of her fellow alumni.

Despite multiple bills being put forth in the 2009 Mississippi legislature concerning the name, nothing happened. The push for a new name died with the installation of the new president, Dr. Jim Borsig. But something curious was missing from the puzzle of the debate in 2009—the opinion of the male students. They come from all walks of life but are united by what brings them to Mississippi University for Women: academics and atmosphere.

“It was the only four-year culinary program in the state,” says Robert Cole, an upcoming junior in the culinary program. Cole came to MUW to pursue a career in the art of food preparation— to him having the name changed means little.

“Honestly, I don’t want to say I don’t care about it, but it’s history. It should be consistent. It was the first public women’s university. Keep the history and tradition alive.”

Cole is representative of the diverse and active male population on the MUW Campus, and there are many more just like him dotted throughout the classes and offices. 

Kris Sullivan leans deeply back in his chair enjoying the moments of rest between working for the Office of Housing and Residence Life and taking six credit hours of summer classes. He’s always quick to laugh and include others in conversations.  

“My instructor knew a student who went here, and that gave me an interest. I liked the atmosphere and history to the school. I just saw myself here,” says Sullivan, a freshman in family studies.

“Personally, I don’t care about the name because when I do say where I go, I say I go to the W, even though there is the women part. But that’s what it’s known for. The name change would be helpful to get more men, but it’s the fact that a lot of people don’t come here because they have to tell people they go to women’s college.”

The pushback male students receive does seem to be the premiere problem for the men of MUW. As soon as they mention where they go to school, they have to offer more insight into their college choice.

“I wanted to come to school where there was a focus on academics, not football,” says Jeffrey O’Quinn, a sixth-year senior in printmaking. He wrings his hands covered in paint and pencil smears in front of him as he speaks.

O’Quinn did his research and believed that the MUW had the best program in the state, and the campus was the atmosphere he was looking for in a university. However, he was not immune to questions that most male students must face when they mention the university’s name.

“Generally, the question is ‘Why you are going to women’s college?’ or “Oh! Why are you going to women’s college,” says O’Quinn in surprised and high-pitched voice mimicking those who are taken aback by the name. A wry grin crosses his face.

“Otherwise there’s not much [pushback.]”

However, while the consensus among the male students may be that the academics and the atmosphere are the best in the state, the men are just as divided on the name change as everyone else.

“I think [a name change] would ease people being taken aback by the name. It sounds appropriate, more neutral. Students can say, ‘I can be a part of these great programs without having to worry about people judging me for going to what was originally a women’s college.’ Overall, I think it would be better for the school if the name was changed. Sometimes traditions have to go with the time, otherwise things just don’t survive,” says O'Quinn in a serious tone.

There appears to be a general awareness that the university has changed enough to merit a new name, but the process will be slow. It will have to respect the history and the traditions of the school.

“We have moved into a situation when people more clearly understand the mission,” says Dr. Pieschel.

She has all the legendary fire that the Mississippi University for Women’s alumni are known for, but she acknowledges that male students coming to the university made the school better and enhanced its mission. In her mind it’s not just about the academics. It’s about promoting an atmosphere of equality and success for both genders. Though that atmosphere is often hard to describe, most faculty and staff would agree it’s palpable, and that it’s what makes “the W” special.

The school has begun moving towards branding itself as “the W”, which has always been Mississippi University for Women’s affectionate nickname. Whether another attempt to change the name is on the horizon remains to be seen, but the new branding and marketing offers a stronger opportunity for round-table discussion on the topic of any potential name change.

Until then it seems the current name will stay displayed on the sign in front of the school’s wrought iron gates. The grey sign nestled in verdant foliage holds the name “Mississippi University for Women” inscribed in gold lettering. The ironic paradox of the school is written underneath in a finer font: “A Tradition of Excellence for Women and Men.”