To most University of Mississippi students and alumni, calling the institution “Ole Miss” is just natural. It’s what people say. University email addresses are @olemiss.edu, not @umiss.edu. But not everyone likes the name.
The university’s announcement on Friday that, as part of a review of race relations at the university, it would encourage “appropriate” use of the term won praise from some quarters but plenty of criticism. So did a series of other announcements by the university, which is hoping to change its association with symbols of the Confederacy. Reports commissioned by the university (which influenced Friday’s announcement) angered some students and alumni—particularly those with ties to the Greek system—by discussing the perceptions of some black students and alumni who are far more critical of university traditions and life at the university than are white students and alumni.
One of the reports, discussing a student focus group, linked the Greek system and the symbols of Southern history: “A number of students believe that the traditional fraternities and sororities serve as attractors, incubators, and protectors for students wedded to the symbols and beliefs of the South’s racist past. With few exceptions, the majority of the group, white and black, nodded in agreement. The African American students shared examples of indignities they have been subject to or witness of that involved the fraternities and sororities.”
“Every black student in the room said that they had been called the ‘N-word’ at least once on campus,” the report says. “From rejection of people of color into the organizations, chanting ‘The South will rise again’ at sporting events, to hurling racist and sexual epithets at innocent passersby, the Greeks are viewed as a major problem.”
The university announcement didn’t use language anything like that but talked about making the university more inclusive. The university announced a series of recommendations that it was endorsing:
- Create a new vice chancellor’s position for diversity and inclusion
- Develop “a set of standards for diversity and engagement”
- Deal “squarely” with issues of race. Provide more “context” in various ways for people to understand the history of race relations at the university
- Change the names of some facilities to draw attention to black Mississippi figures. For example, a road will be renamed to honor Lee “Chucky” Mullins, a black football player who was paralyzed and later died.
- Change the name of “Confederate Drive” to “Chapel Lane”
- Seeking “appropriate” use of the Ole Miss name
A statement from Chancellor Dan Jones said, “We will need to continue a dialogue on race at our university. Our unique history regarding race provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on race issues, but also a large opportunity—one we should and will embrace.”
The University of Mississippi was segregated for decades and admitted James Meredith as its first black student in 1962 only after multiple court orders and federal intervention—and days of riots by white people opposed to integration. A statue of Meredith at the university—seen as a symbol of the institution acknowledging its history—was vandalized with a noose this year, and three fraternity members were accused of being responsible.
This is not the first time the university has tried to limit its association with Confederate symbols. In the 1990s, amid concerns that waving the Confederate flag at football games was discouraging black athletes from enrolling, the university adopted new rules designed to bar the flag (although the rules were not explicit about the Confederate flag to avoid violations of the First Amendment). A federal appeals court in 1990 upheld the rules (which barred all large flags or flags on sticks from football games) and the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. While the university won the legal ruling, confederate symbols (many times unofficially) continued to be associated with the university.
The Ole Miss Name
The current review is broader than many of the previous efforts, which focused on specific practices such as flying Confederate flags. The university is now discussing diversity broadly, and history and symbols and names that have created strong emotional connections for many students and alumni. The Ole Miss name is a particularly contentious issue.
The university statement said this on the Ole Miss name: “UM’s longstanding nickname is beloved by the vast majority of its students and alumni. But a few, especially some university faculty, are uncomfortable with it. Some don’t want it used at all and some simply don’t want it used within the academic context.” The statement noted that the university did a national study of people’s responses to the name and found that most people view it only as “an affectionate name for the university” and that “a very small percentage of respondents associate the university, either as ‘Ole Miss’ or ‘University of Mississippi,’ with negative race issues.”
The statement said that “both names will be used in appropriate contexts going forward, with particular emphasis going to ‘Ole Miss’ in athletics and as a representation of the university’s spirit.”