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Mississippi University for Women president ‘confident’ new name will be agreed on by Feb. 14 legislative deadline

Photo courtesy of Mississippi University for Women

Last Monday, officials at the Mississippi University for Women caused a firestorm of controversy after they sent out a gung-ho announcement that the institution was changing its name to Mississippi Brightwell University.

While most critics were not against the rebranding itself – especially considering the university has been coeducational now for 41 years – the bulk of opposition found the proposed name to be an overall poor choice. Alumni hit social media, complaining about the name but also feeling left out of the conversation, citing a school-conducted survey that didn’t even include Mississippi Brightwell University as an option.

Nora Miller, the president of Mississippi University for Women, admitted her mistake during a recent episode of The Gallo Show. Displaying genuine candor, Miller has pushed Mississippi Brightwell aside for the time being and has called for the school’s naming task force to come up with a handful of options for the larger MUW community to choose from.

“Right now, we are taking a bit of a pause. We announced our proposed name last week, and we have been getting a lot of feedback – some that is very constructive feedback,” Miller said. “So, we have hit the pause button. We are listening and reflecting on the constructive feedback… We are going to gather more information and see what can be acceptable. And this time, we will share prospective names with the larger community and get more feedback on those.”

In the days following the initial announcement, Miller explained the task force’s decision not to use some of the top vote-getters from the survey, including the University of Northern Mississippi and Callaway State University (in reference to school founder Mary J.S. Callaway). She, along with faculty and alumni, has stressed and continues to stress that compass points or historical names present potential problems for the university as it works to up an enrollment that has been declining for years.

“We set some parameters for a new name. One that we heard loud and clear from our alumni and faculty is that they did not want a regional or geographical name. The feeling was that just didn’t capture the unique qualities of our university,” Miller reiterated during the interview. “Then, we decided no historic names or surnames just because that’s dangerous these days. You don’t know going back a few generations what may have happened or what 50 years from now what may totally be acceptable now won’t be 50 years in the future.”

While Miller stands by the decision not to use compass points or historical names, she did admit that the task force’s decision to try to protect the school’s storied “W” may have been a misstep in the process. The group initially shut down any potential names that started with the letter in an attempt to close a chapter that included becoming the first public-funded university for only women in the U.S. when it opened in 1884.

Miller said they failed to fully consider that the university has played a major role in the lives of males since it began admitting them in 1982 after a ruling from the Supreme Court. Even with “women” still in the name, the university has educated thousands of male students. Today, one in five students on campus in Columbus is male.

“Where we made a mistake – and I’ll admit that – is we said that for over 100 years, our ‘W’ was for women, and we didn’t want to grasp at W names to satisfy that. We wanted to honor our history in other ways, but our ‘W’ stands for women,” Miller explained. “That was our mistake because, for over 41 years, the W has not just been for women. It has been for everyone, and we all have our own W experiences, memories, and warm places in our hearts. So, that was a tactical error.”

So, if any hints were given during Miller’s interview, it’s that one of the prospective names set to be offered up by the university could begin with the letter “W.” But the clock is ticking. Since the school is publicly funded, it will have to present a final name, have it approved by the Institutions of Higher Learning, and be written into a bill in the Mississippi legislature by the upcoming Feb. 14 deadline. If the bill is passed, Gov. Tate Reeves will be expected to sign it into law and MUW can officially open a new chapter in its history ahead of the 2024-25 academic year.

“We’ve got a short time frame, but we can do it,” Miller said. “I feel confident that we are going to be able to come up with a name that our alumni can support and that we can move forward with.”

What was wrong with Mississippi Brightwell University?

Before backlash ensued, Miller and company chose Mississippi Brightwell University as an homage to the school motto, “We study for light to bless with light.” As previously mentioned, most of those concerned had no problem with the name changing; they simply thought Mississippi Brightwell was a poor and even controversial choice.

Multiple social media users of course pointed out that Mississippi Brightwell was not included in the fall 2022 survey. Others requested that MUW be changed to Welty University in honor of the school’s most notable alumnus, short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty. The strangest of the complaints was that the term “brightwell” refers to a sex addict, according to Urban Dictionary. The internet slang source has since removed the definition in its entirety.

Will lawmakers vote in favor of a new name?

The short answer is yes, according to multiple lawmakers SuperTalk Mississippi News has spoken to. Like most critics, though, they just want to make sure the final proposed name has universal support from the MUW community behind it. The general consensus at the capitol is that a name change not only would pass both chambers but is needed as MUW has been coeducational for over four decades now.

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