It was 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and Jim Borsig was out of uniform. In the place of his normal a suit and tie, he wore blue jeans and an causal button-down shirt, a sure sign his days as president at Mississippi University for Women were drawing to a close.
Friday was Borsig’s last official day at The W. He was basically down to a single suitcase when he boarded a Delta flight headed for his new home in Maine this weekend.
Borsig arrived at The W in 2011 from his job as associated commissioner at the Institutions of Higher Learning at a time when the university was going through something of an identity crisis. Deep divisions, especially among alumnae, and persistent talk of the school merging with Mississippi State as a branch campus or closing altogether hung like a pall over the school.
At the time of Borsig’s arrival, MUW faced serious challenges, including a shrinking budget and a steady decline in enrollment. The pressures to reverse that trend led to a breach in relations among the MUW family, most notably among alumnae.
Many feared efforts to appeal to male students through marketing the university (who began admitting males in 1982) in a more gender-neutral way would diminish the much-loved tradition of the first public women’s college in the United States. Some suggestions, including dropping “women” from the university’s name, were met with fierce resistance.
Borsig’s mission was the find a way to harmonize the needs of the present with the traditions of the past and heal those wounds in the process — all while enrollment began to slowly grow again.
In a Q&A session, Borsig, 61, talked at length about the job that awaited him seven years ago and how the job has evolved since then.
Q: What will your legacy will be?
“During my interviews, I was asked, ‘How are you going to get everybody back together?’ The best answer I could come up with was that we had to have a vision bigger than any one individual that we could get behind and go there with. But after I had been here two or three months and had time to reflect on what I was hearing, I told people privately that if there is any metaphor for my presence here, I hope it would be an inflection point, a point of change. That led to two things I wanted to do as president. First, I wanted to find a way to get this place and everyone in it back on a path, not necessarily even knowing what that path was at the time, but getting on a path. Then, I wanted to leave the university better than I found it.”
Q: Given the circumstances, what appealed to you about the job?
“When I was nominated, I had to be encouraged to apply for the position. One of the things I knew, and something that was rapidly confirmed when I got here, is how strong academics was. There was not an issue on the academics side. The university was already doing some good things and had the potential to do more.
“What was working, well, someone smarter than me called it a process of agreement. Everybody really is in agreement. The crisis is they’re not talking to each other to realize they are in agreement. We just had to get out of that rut. It was like we were stuck in a loop.”
Q: What was that loop?
“I think, at the 10,000-foot level, a lot of what was happening had to do with change. … We have a great history, but we can’t be what we were 50 years ago to be successful today. I think all of that tension spilled over. The comment was made about loving the university to death. The reality was everybody loved the university. They just couldn’t find a way to get on the same page.”
Q: How did you begin to address that?
“Some of it was already happening. Allegra Brigham, the interim president, had already started the hard work of bringing everybody back to the table, especially the alumnae. So the foundation was laid, but it took a while for everybody to catch on to what was happening. That probably took a couple of years. … We were always going to be primarily a women-serving institution but we could still be at peace with being co-educational.”
Q: One of the things you worked on early at The W was branding. Why was that important?
“To be successful in anything, you have to understand the context and culture you are operating in. Branding the university as ‘The W’ was part of that. We went through the process, asked all the questions, did focus groups and it was a resounding, ‘Yes, (The W) is what you ought to brand the university behind.’ Then, we had to get the colors right and stick with them. Then it was one style of font. We had to impose some order on the chaos of everybody doing whatever they wanted to do with those things. We didn’t spend any more money marketing the university than before. We just spent it according to a plan.
“After two years of that, boom: The W was everywhere. Everything fell into line. We finally had one consistent branding message.”
Q: How did that play into your main goal of bringing the university together?
“There are still core values of this university that haven’t and won’t change. Our students love this university just like everybody who went here before did. It just looks different.
“I think the other thing was that it helped set a new narrative. After almost 20 years of lingering fears about money and merger and closure, we began to focus on what makes us unique among the eight institutions of higher learning in the state. We are the small private college feel and a public college price, and there’s a heck of a lot of Mississippians who go to small high schools that want an education on a campus like ours.”
Q: You were always out in the community and around campus. Was that your nature or a strategic move on your part?
“It’s my nature, really. I was raised to be involved in the community and have been all my life. One of the things that a smaller university in a place like Columbus allows you to do is get to know everybody. But to do that, you have to show up.”
I wanted to be out there and talk to people. Everybody I talked to has a story about the W. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where that hasn’t happened.
Q: In addition to adding programs like the online MBA and the MFA in Creative Writing, another big addition was the return of college athletics this year. Are you pleased with how athletics has worked out?
“As we evaluated this, we never said it would grow enrollment. Some places have added athletics for that purse. What we did want to do is strengthen traditional-age students living on campus, which is something we’ve seen.
“It will take two or three more years before the verdict is in, but it has exceeded my expectations in terms of the impact it has had on student life. The public support has come quicker than I anticipated. The community at large has embraced these student athletes and they have been good ambassadors for the university.
Q: Why did you decide it was time to retire?
“Presidents are hired at the time they are hired for a skill set for the issues the university faces at the time. I was hired, you could argue, in a crisis time. Most of what I set out to do has been done.
“The other thing is the best transitions happen when things are going well. So it was a combination of those things, really.”
Q: What will you miss most?
“Easy question. It’s the students. All of the best days were the days dealing with students.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.