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 on 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 that we have to offer.”
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 and surveyed university stakeholders
“They helped us with … focusing more on the brand, who we are 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 that the university decided against a geographic or a regional name because they felt that those names didn’t capture the unique qualities of the institution and could confuse them with the state’s community colleges. They also decided not to go with an historic or a family name.
“You don’t know what happened a few generations ago, what might happen a few generations from now,” Miller said.
However, 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 was originally chartered in 1884 as the Industrial Institute and College with a mission to provide higher education in the arts and vocational training in skills deemed practical for women.
An existing private school, Columbus Female Institute, gave space for the college.
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 dedicated itself to the mission of education for Mississippi women.
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 Fourteenth Amendment. Due to the ruling, MUW opened all its academic programs to males.
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.
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.
Miller said she is committed to retaining the history and tradition of the university. She is proposing the establishment of a women’s college to make sure that alumni know they are still committed to advancing educational opportunities for women.
“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 Mississippi Legislature is responsible for the names and missions of public Mississippi universities. The name change could be acted upon in the current legislative session, which began this month and ends in April.
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