Stephen Griffin offers a takeaway from a Mississippi university’s messy name change process – and a possible solution.
Recently, the historic Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi—MUW or “The W” for short—announced the results of a renaming process that had been in the works for some time. Founded in 1884 and formerly called Mississippi State College for Women (MSCW), MUW has been coeducational since 1982. Thus the naming conundrum.
A 2009 report from Eduventures, a higher education research and consulting firm, recommended that MUW explore a name change in order to boost enrollment, suggesting that the school’s perception as a “women’s” university “may contribute to enrollment growth challenges.” In 2022, the school surveyed its alumni, students, employees, and other community members on a variety of potential new names. Finally, this January, the insitution publicly announced that it would be renamed as Mississippi Brightwell University (MBU) pending approval by the state college board and legislature.
Mississippi Brightwell University, however, wasn’t one of the names presented in the survey.
One can imagine the confusion that ensued from many Mississippians, including MUW alumni, who felt the Brightwell moniker to be ambiguous at best and hokey at worst, despite the rationale that it referred to the school’s motto. In fact, as many as two-thirds of alumni surveyed preferred the name “University of Northern Mississippi (UNM).”
On January 19, just 11 days after the transition was announced, MUW President Nora Miller released a statement indicating that the renaming task force had been reconvened and would work alongside a communications firm to release a new survey beginning January 26. The survey will end on January 29 with the aim of bringing a proposed “W” name to the legislature during its 2024 session.
In my estimation, there is at least one key takeaway from this apparently messy process, along with at least one possible solution.
First, higher ed leaders must begin to appreciate the significance of brand. Brands are powerful things. They have the power to unify, inspire, and motivate people to action.
It’s interesting to me that very few of the options in the initial survey would have allowed the university to keep the “W” brand recognized by generations of Mississippians. My own grandmother attended the school in the 1940s, when it was known as MSCW. I have only ever known it as “The W.” Obviously, the Brightwell name would delete “W” from the university’s brand altogether. The problem is that “The W” is the brand and not just a casual, worn-out nickname. Embracing a name like MBU means the school would be tasked with fundamentally erasing its current identity and building a new brand entirely from scratch.
The university appears to have learned its lesson in this area, although I can imagine that having to walk back the initial announcement would cause no small amount of embarrassment. I’m looking forward to seeing what the task force will come up with.
A Possible Solution
Secondly, there is a possible solution to this whole debacle. When the name change was announced, a smattering of Mississippians took to social media to advocate for a name that has been tossed around more than once in the university’s history: Welty University.
Eudora Alice Welty, a Jackson native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, attended MSCW from 1925-1927. Though she transferred and completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, MUW’s website lists her as their “most famous alumna.”
Naming the university for Welty checks at least two important boxes. The first is that the name is distinctly rooted in Mississippi’s history as well as that of the institution, yet still manages to lend slightly better statewide and nationwide name ID than “Mississippi Brightwell.” The second and perhaps more critical piece is that it allows the university to remain “The W,” as so many alumni and friends so fondly remember it.
The only catch is that the jury may still be out on whether Welty’s family would give their blessing to this change. Curiously, the Clarion Ledger reported on January 9 that Welty’s family “did not sign off” on a previous attempt to name the school for her, while the Columbus Dispatch reported in 2009 that family members had given the OK (I’m indebted to @jallen1985 on Twitter/X for this tidbit).
In the end, I’m simply hopeful that the W will lean heavily on its alumni and student bodies to find a name that is most appropriate to its location, history, and values. Creativity is good. Communications firms are good. But so are listening, reflecting, and reevaluating when necessary.
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