Limbert’s exit may stall MUW name change

Published 2:28 pm Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The mission to rename Mississippi University for Women will likely lose momentum now that MUW President Claudia Limbert has announced she’ll retire next year.

Limbert said she’ll step down when her contract ends in June 2010. Her tenure, which began in 2002, has been a rocky one. That’s due in large part to her efforts to persuade faculty, alumni and business leaders to join the campaign for a gender-neutral name at the campus in Columbus.

For her effort, she caught flak publicly from disgruntled alumni and possibly behind the scenes from legislators and other leaders.

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Limbert announced in August that she was recommending Reneau University as the college’s new name in honor of Sallie Eola Reneau, who wrote to state officials in 1856 urging them to create a public female college.

Of course, the new name isn’t a done deal. The state College Board has to approve a change, and forward its recommendation to the Mississippi Legislature.

Certainly, the renaming issue didn’t originate with Limbert. The topic had been bounced around for years. During 2002 interviews for the MUW post, candidates were asked their opinion on the need to rebrand the university, which started admitting men in 1982 after a court challenge.

Limbert made significant progress on the front, albeit taking some bruises along the way.

She gained the support of the Mississippi Economic Council and the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link. Those economic development groups contend a name change will help draw more students and lead to expansion of college programs, which would make the area more attractive to companies that might locate there.

Limbert seems resigned about her role.

“We’ve done everything here on the campus we can do about that. We’ve done our work here,” she told The Associated Press.

Allegra Brigham, CEO and general manager of 4-County Electric Power Association and a spokeswoman for the Link, said she believes Limbert will continue to push for the name change as long as she’s president. Brigham, a former public relations director for MUW, said the school should have been rebranded after the state Supreme Court decision allowed men to enroll in the early 1980s.

“I certainly hope it doesn’t get dropped in the process,” Brigham said. “The resistance comes from the alumni who talk to their legislators. Then, the legislators are influenced by the people who vote for them.”

Alumni opposed to the name change could see Limbert’s departure as an opportunity to mount a stronger protest.

Betty Lou Jones, a 1966 MUW graduate and critic of the name change, said it would be “a tremendous injustice” to pursue it with a new administration coming on board. Jones, who was president of the MUW alumnae association when Limbert severed the group’s ties with the school in 2007, said it’s too divisive an issue to put before the Legislature.

Lawmakers aren’t making any promises either way.

“We look forward to hearing from the College Board. We don’t have to necessarily take their recommendation,” said Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said renaming MUW boils down to keeping the school viable — the school needs to grow. Founded in 1884, the university has about 3,100 students, about 16 percent of whom are male. It’s located about 30 miles from Mississippi State University, the largest college in the state.

Bounds acknowledged that changing the name “isn’t a silver bullet” for MUW, but said “we’re best served by really giving the name change a hard look.”