Thursday, January 22, 2015
The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has finally issued a decision on proposed changes to Wilson’s Articles of Incorporation (Charter). By adopting the “Proposed Report” prepared on the matter for Acting Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, the PDE has approved revisions to Wilson’s Charter, which include making the College coeducational across all programs, thereby eliminating the College for Women. Despite the PDE’s decision, there is harsh criticism of the College’s actions, and in no part of the report does the PDE find error in the information or arguments presented by the Limited Participants. Indeed, significant legal and factual questions were resolved in the Limited Participants’ favor. Here is a recap of the decision released by the PDE on January 6, 2015.
The first 2 pages of the PDE’s 8-page report itemize 15 “Findings of Fact” that summarize a series of events starting May 3, 2013, when the Wilson Board of Trustees submitted draft changes to the College’s Articles of Incorporation to the PDE. The Findings recount that, in July 2013, the PDE published notice of Wilson’s application to amend its Charter in the Pennsylvania Bulletin and that, in response, the Department “received a written request for a hearing, a petition to intervene and letters of protest regarding the Application.” As a result, the PDE held a public informational hearing on June 16, 2014, in Harrisburg after granting limited participation to four alumnae and soliciting written statements in advance of the hearing from the College and the Limited Participants.
The PDE reported that of the “numerous issues with Wilson’s proposed amendments to its Articles,” it identified “two main issues raised by the [four] Limited Participants… to be addressed by PDE.” These two issues were the focus of the PDE’s decision:
“(1) Wilson’s proposed amendment to the 1993 Articles to operate as a co-educational college; and (2) changes Wilson was making, or made, to accommodate male residential students prior to receiving official approval of its proposed amendments to its Articles from PDE.”
Why did the PDE approve the amendments to Wilson’s Charter?
The PDE rejected the key argument made by the College at the June 16, 2014, hearing, i.e., the notion that a phrase in the 1993 Articles – “including, without limitation” – means that the College can do anything it wants, including becoming fully coeducational without PDE approval. Writing unequivocally, the PDE ruled that, in order to become coeducational across all programs, the College absolutely needed to file amended Articles with the PDE and obtain PDE approval of the amendments prior to implementing this change.
Instead, Wilson admitted the first traditional-age male student in February 2013 and issued a press release about the student. Only several months later did the Board of Trustees file amendments to the Charter with the PDE. The College’s precipitous actions notwithstanding, in the words of the PDE, “Although there has been significant documentation and testimony about the history of Wilson as a college for women and the manner in which the Wilson Board decided to approve the proposed amendments to the 1993 Articles, PDE’s authority is to determine whether the proposed amendments to the Articles conform to law, PDE regulations and State Board of Education standards and qualifications.” The PDE determined that “although the amendment [in May 2013 to the Articles] does not explicitly state that Wilson ‘offers residential opportunity’… a statement of a co-educational college would implicitly include residential facilities for both male and female students .... PDE finds such amendment conforms to law, … and results in an institution that would be eligible to receive a certificate of authority as an institution.”
In other words, if Wilson had been a new college seeking authority from the state to operate as a college and grant degrees, the Articles of Incorporation as amended would allow the College to do that, assuming it met other standards required by law. In focusing on this one standard, that is, the eligibility to operate as an institution of higher education in Pennsylvania, the PDE’s report did not evaluate the College against other standards including the educational needs of the area and the Commonwealth, a point the Limited Participants asked the PDE to consider.
Additionally, throughout this process, the Limited Participants argued that the Board of Trustees knowingly relied on incorrect, misleading, and incomplete information when it approved coeducation and the amended charter. The PDE acknowledged this evidence and the arguments presented by the Limited Participants, but again interpreted its authority narrowly and wrote, “PDE’s authority does not include determining whether it believes Wilson’s Board was provided misleading information....” The PDE described these matters as “internal” and “within the purview of Wilson’s Board.” This means even if the Board of a non-profit educational institution chooses to accept misleading information as the basis for its decisions, the PDE’s stated position in this decision is that it has no authority to intervene.
Why didn’t the PDE take any action against Wilson for recruiting and otherwise accommodating male residential students prior to receiving PDE approval to do so?
It is in this section of its report that the PDE offered its harshest assessment of Wilson’s actions, but then – in an astonishing display of convoluted logic – explained why it is taking no action against the College. The PDE determined the following:
“From the documentation and testimony provided at the informational hearing, it is apparent to PDE that Wilson began making changes to the college in order to operate as a co-educational, residential college prior to PDE approving the proposed amendments to its Articles. As stated above, PDE has interpreted the 1993 Articles as not authorizing a co-educational residential college; therefore, to the extent Wilson has admitted male residential students Wilson is arguably operating in contravention of its Articles.”
Immediately after making this strong negative statement that the College’s implementation of coeducation was in violation of its own Charter, the PDE decision continues, “Although PDE does not condone Wilson’s actions that are arguably in contravention to its Articles; PDE’s authority to ‘penalize’ Wilson for its actions is limited.” The PDE asserted that it does have the authority to revoke an “institution's degree-granting privileges,” if the institution fails to maintain certain standards, but the PDE does not believe Wilson’s actions resulted in “a situation where revocation of its degree-granting privileges would be appropriate.”
The ensuing logic (on page 8 of the PDE report) is not easy to explain. The PDE’s position seems to be that, if Wilson’s actions had warranted revocation of its degree-granting privileges, the College would have been given ample time by the PDE to correct its course, which Wilson has already done by filing amendments to its Articles so it can admit male residential students. And now the PDE has approved those amendments, so everything is fine.
But does the decision tell us everything is fine? Reading closely, it does not. The PDE concluded, contrary to what representatives of the College tried to represent in their testimony, that Wilson was not coed in 1970, nor was it fully coed in 1993. It is clear from the PDE decision that Wilson’s actions to admit male residential students prior to receiving approval of the proposed amendments violated Wilson’s 1993 Charter, which was still in effect and which indicated the College should operate a residential College for Women. It is clear that Wilson’s actions also violated Pennsylvania law. (Furthermore, state law [Title 24, Section 6509] spells out that this type of violation is a summary offense.) Given these actions by the College, how can everything be fine?
Despite declaring in the “Conclusion” to its decision that “Wilson’s action of proceeding … is not what should have occurred and should not occur in the future [emphasis added],” the PDE elected not to exercise any authority over the actions of the Board of Trustees and the President. Did the PDE avoid sanctioning the College because so much time had elapsed since the first objections to the proposed amended Articles were filed in the summer of 2013?*
Sections of the PDE report are striking not only because of what they say, but because of what they do not say. For example, in concluding that, of the “numerous issues” the Limited Participants raised, it would address two main issues in its decision, the PDE did not review, among other points:
Many alumnae and supporters have voiced their concerns about the future of Wilson and the path the Administration and Board of Trustees have chosen for the College. Many have followed their consciences to speak out and reflect on the meaning of Wilson’s Honor Principle. Those concerns came from sitting and former Trustees, as well as many others. Those concerns were directed not only to the President and the Board of Trustees, but also to the Alumnae Association of Wilson College (as reflected in the AAWC Fall 2013 Board Meeting minutes**), yet none of the mentioned parties took action to investigate. Instead, the College plunged forward with implementation of the changes, which they labeled “transformative” and “transparent,” ignoring cautions that their actions were being taken without proper authorization.
On January 8, 2015, the College issued a press release indicating how happy it was that the PDE had approved the revised Charter. It is interesting to contrast the content and tone of that press release with the content and tone of the PDE decision itself.
During the past two-and-a-half years, many alumnae and friends of the College worked together to safeguard and champion Wilson’s mission. In the words of one alumna, “We can hold our heads high. The Trustees, [President] Mistick, and other administrators cannot. The Wilson we loved is gone (it has been gone)—not just because it is no longer a women’s college, but because the honor is gone.”
Firmly pledged to promote the value and sisterhood of women’s colleges…Deborah Barnes ’71
Melissa Behm ’76
Kendal Hopkins ’80
Nicole Noll ’03
Carol Noon ’87
* It also is worth noting that, between May 2013 and January 2015, when the PDE apparently finalized its decision, the Department was in disarray. The PA Secretary of Education resigned and was replaced by Acting Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq. Then-Deputy Secretary for Post-Secondary and Higher Education, Jill Hans, who presided over the June 16, 2014, hearing in Harrisburg, left the Department in September 2014. Hans’ successor in the Wilson matter, Theresa Barnaby, moved to a different position within the PDE before finalizing the decision; she was subsequently reminded in writing by Acting PDE Secretary Dumaresq that she needed to complete the decision. The process that followed the July 2013 publication of proposed amendments to Wilson’s Charter dragged on for more than 18 months. The PDE decision, which is notable only for its brevity and narrow interpretation of PA state law, finally arrived shortly before Pennsylvania’s new governor took office.
** The Alumnae Association of Wilson College September, 2013, minutes recorded that “comments [were] sent to the PA Department of Education in opposition to acceptance of the revised charter and stating that the college is now operating in violation of its current charter by accepting male students across all cohorts.”
The pinesandmaples.com website was established on October 11, 2012, by a group of Wilson College alumnae to persuade the Board of Trustees and President of Wilson College to ensure Wilson’s success as a women’s college. Since the Board’s vote on January 13, 2013, to make Wilson College coeducational across all programs, we have worked independently of the College to keep alumnae informed about events, activities, and decisions that affect our alma mater. In January of 2014, the site was moved to daisiescantell.com.