Wednesday, June 1, 2016
It is time for an update from the Wilson alumnae who have been active at Daisies Can Tell, in Wilson College Women, and in the efforts, coordinated through the Limited Participants, to raise objections with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and with the Pennsylvania courts. It has indeed been a while since you last heard from us, but much work was underway and there is news to share.
The End of One Road
On February 4, 2016, the efforts of the Limited Participants and all Wilson College Women engaged in the efforts to challenge, through the legal appeals process, the decision of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to allow the Board of Trustees’ changes to the mission and Charter of Wilson College to stand came to an end. With the issuance of an Order from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, the Petition for Review that was filed by the Limited Participants to appeal the January 6, 2015, final order of the Department of Education was dismissed. In an opinion written by Senior Judge James Gardner Colins, Paula Tishok, Gretchen Van Ness, Kendal Hopkins, and Melissa Behm (the Limited Participants and subsequently the Petitioners) were determined to “lack standing” to file an appeal against the PDE. Recourse through the legal processes under Commonwealth law seems to be exhausted. Later in this letter more information on why the appeal was undertaken and all the steps involved with it is reported. But, before that, there is something more important to say.
This process has not been about four women taking on the role of Limited Participants in a hearing process conducted by the PDE or their subsequent work in an appeals and review process. Nor has this process been just about the women who launched Daisies Can Tell (originally, Pines and Maples). Many, many of you have participated in these efforts. You have put countless hours into the work required to mount a grassroots effort that has lifted up a big voice. You worked as fundraisers, consciousness raisers, letter writers, advocates, protestors, donors, and more. You showed integrity, perseverance, compassion, and strength. You remained patient and courageous. You did not lose sight of your dreams, not just for your alma mater but for all women’s colleges. You continue to believe in the vital importance of women’s colleges and in the critical role that we as individual members of a larger society play when we speak out against actions that are harmful to interests we support. For all of these qualities and actions, we thank you and recognize you. Each of you is a Wilson Woman.
The Start of a New Journey
We are still the same women we were when we took up our cause—back in October 2012 (!)—to keep a college for women at Wilson College. Indeed, we are stronger and smarter for the experience. And, as Wilson Women, we know how to continue a journey and remain true to our beliefs.
As we have watched global events over the course of these past 3+ years, we have realized that options for women’s education are more important than ever and every bit as relevant as decades ago. So, what do we do next? How can we contribute? We invite you to help in making those choices.
The Personal Choice of Whether to Stay Connected to Wilson
Reunion Weekend at Wilson this year is June 3–6, 2016. Each alumna’s decision to attend or not is a personal one. You can find more information about Reunion activities on the College website. Some classes will be holding events off campus in addition to the planned schedule of activities on campus. Reach out to your classmates and make the decisions that are right for you and your Wilson sisters.
Remember the value of your Wilson experience. Believe in the power of that experience in an environment dedicated to the education of women. Know that if you questioned the actions of the President and Board of Trustees at Wilson, you did so in good faith and with integrity. It is now for each of us to choose what our future relationship with Wilson will be. Why Wilson College Women took the actions of the past year to continue to express concerns is covered below, if you would like to read on.
Why was it important to appeal?
When the Limited Participants undertook to appeal the PDE decision, with the invaluable help of many Wilson College Women, we recognized that our efforts might not be able to change the outcome of what is happening at Wilson, but our aim was to ask the Court to hold the PDE accountable to the law. In essence, our appeal to the Court was meant to provide a path for others in the future who choose to challenge actions by non-profit institutions of higher education and/or Boards of Trustees that do not follow procedure as set forth in Commonwealth law or the laws of any state in which that organization resides.
The Wilson Board of Trustees’ and administration’s decision to move forward with changes to Wilson’s mission and charter before seeking and receiving approval of the PDE violated both Pennsylvania law and PDE regulations. When the PDE handed down its decision in January 2015, it criticized the College for failing to obtain permission from the PDE for the fundamental changes the College made to our alma mater. The PDE agreed with the Limited Participants and told the College that what it had done was wrong and that it should not happen again. Despite its conclusion that the College had violated the law, the PDE declined to sanction the College or to require it to take any actions to redress its missteps.
The PDE’s decision in the Wilson College matter sets a troubling precedent for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. Unlike the Save Wilson decision in Franklin County Orphans Court in 1979, which set a high bar for closing a college and was frequently cited in the litigation leading to the reopening of Sweet Briar College last summer, the PDE’s decision provides an example that other college and university boards of directors will be able to cite. Could this decision be used by a Board to elect to ignore certain provisions in the law, make changes they wish to their institution regardless of their impact on the institution’s constituents and the public good, or otherwise behave without penalty for negative consequences on the institution’s charter and historic mission? Shame on members of a Board of Directors or Board of Trustees who think that, in their brief tenure on a board, they can have the knowledge and wisdom to act without consultation with other stewards of the institution.
It was because of the troubling precedent established by the PDE decision that the Limited Participants appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. It should be more difficult to fundamentally change the mission of a college, particularly a college whose purpose has focused on providing real educational opportunity to students whose options for participation have been limited. The briefs and arguments of the appeal are posted.
We had hoped the Court would establish a clear and rigorous process for reviewing proposed changes to college and university charters. We had hoped the Court would create a clearly delineated path for others in the future who seek, with merit, to challenge the actions of the governing board of an educational institution.
Why was the appeal dismissed?
The Opinion of the Court to dismiss is posted on daisiescantell.com for those of you who would like to read the full statement. But, in brief, the Court found that the Petitioners did not have “a direct interest in the matter” nor had they been “aggrieved by the agency [the PDE] decision.” The Court determined that none of the Petitioners is “directly affected by whether Wilson is coeducational, as they no longer are enrolled in Wilson or residing or taking classes on its campus, nor do they teach or work at Wilson.” And further the Court stated, “While Petitioners’ attachment to Wilson is real, the ties and devotion that alumnae feel for their alma mater are not the type of actual, direct interest necessary to confer standing.” Despite Paula’s, Gretchen’s, and Melissa’s position as Everitt-Pomeroy Trustees, they were deemed to “lack a sufficient actual and direct interest to have standing to challenge the institution’s actions” because they do not have voting privileges in that capacity.
In the Court’s opinion, the role of Wilson College Women at the hearing in Harrisburg in June of 2014 was reduced to an allowance to “provide information, comment and argument to the Department.” In what the writers of this letter find an odd interpretation of the actual events of that day, the Judge wrote, “The fact that the Department concluded that Petitioners should be allowed to provide information that could aid the Department in its decision in no way constitutes a determination that Petitioners had a direct, legally cognizable interest sufficient to permit them to seek judicial relief in this matter.” In sum, because the Court was able to make this “no standing” ruling, it did not need to examine the merits of any of the statements in the PDE decision that pointedly referred to the actions of the President of Wilson College and its Board of Trustees as “…arguably operating in contravention of its [the College’s] Articles” of Incorporation.**
We Hope You Will Stay Involved
We welcome your support as we take up new initiatives to support women’s colleges and women’s education elsewhere. Check in at Facebook and Daisies Can Tell. Or write to us (firstname.lastname@example.org)—we invite you to share your ideas. We could begin an online forum. We can all follow Diane Propsner’s ’82 Huffington Post blog on the advantages of women’s colleges. What have you been doing to advance women’s education? What other recommendations and interests do you have? Please let us know so that we can build plans for action.
Thank you again for your interest and your involvement. Many of us have given time and treasure to save our Wilson. Each of us acted on our best intentions and with honor. These are marks in the “win” column despite the ruling of the Court. We will each decide what moving forward means. Our connections as Wilson Women are the piece of our Wilson we carry away with us. Carry it proudly and visibly.
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
Barbara Shaffer ’81
Paula Tishok ’71
Gretchen Van Ness ’80
* “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” –Adrienne Rich in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, a volume we heartily recommend.
** PDE decision, page 7
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.