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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dear Alumna,

The June 16, 2014, informational hearing at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) went well for the Limited Participants, four extremely well prepared alumnae who offered compelling testimony on behalf of Wilson College Women and others who believe Wilson should retain its core mission as a women’s college. The purpose of the hearing was to gather information that will allow the PDE to decide whether changes to the College’s Articles of Incorporation proposed by Wilson’s Board of Trustees should be approved in whole, in part, or denied. One of those changes would make Wilson coeducational across all programs, thereby eliminating the all-female, residential, undergraduate College for Women.

We encourage you to read this review of the day’s events, but if you can’t take that time, then jump down to the three unexpected developments. Each is numbered and in bold later in this letter. We think after you read them, you’ll find yourself back at the beginning to read this entire message!

In the most recent Daisies Can Tell email, we discussed a major line of reasoning the College had emphasized. In written testimony, the College had quoted the 1970 version of the charter as saying the “…object and purpose of said corporation [Wilson] are hereby declared to be to promote the education of both men and women….” In its response to the Limited Participants’ testimony, the College claimed “the 1993 Articles of Incorporation do not prohibit the College from operating a coeducational undergraduate program (and the 1970 Amendment would encourage it).” What happened to that argument during the PDE public informational hearing, as well as other statements made by President Mistick, surprised many people who traveled to Harrisburg to witness the event firsthand.

Here is a synopsis of what was said at the PDE hearing and a description of three unexpected – and important – developments.

After providing a brief history of events leading up to the hearing and discussing the rules of conduct for the hearing and next steps,* the hearing officer L. Jill Hans, Deputy Secretary for Postsecondary and Higher Education, asked to hear first from the College, as previously arranged. Wilson attorney Elizabeth Maguschak, of McNees Wallace & Nurick, reiterated the College’s written testimony that the authority of the PDE was very limited and confined primarily to Title 24 of the PA Code. She said nothing in Pennsylvania’s standards takes away from the authority of a Board of Trustees to control the pace of change at a college. Ms. Maguschak also emphasized that, although the Limited Participants had made much of the flawed and rushed 2012 Commission process,** the PDE had no authority to consider whether it was flawed or not.

President Barbara Mistick, Trustee and Commission Chair Leslie Durgin ’69, and former Board Chair John Gibb then proceeded to defend the Commission process as transparent, inclusive, and not rushed. President Mistick reiterated the argument that Wilson has “long educated men and women,” and that their education has been “distinguished only by lack of housing [for men].” President Mistick emphasized it is “critical to understand” Wilson’s struggles with enrollment. Mr. Gibb also cited Wilson’s failure to recruit a sufficient number of students as justification for the Board’s decision on coeducation.

Two things to note: First, President Mistick’s statement that the education of women and men at Wilson is distinguished only by their residential status underscores her lack of understanding about Wilson College as an institution, and the unique educational experience it has offered to young women for the past 144 years. If President Mistick really believes residential status is the only distinction between the educational experience of female and male students at Wilson why, during her interviews to become Wilson’s president, did she claim to appreciate the value of women’s colleges and say she was committed to Wilson remaining a women’s college?

Second, alumnae have always agreed that Wilson needs to enroll more students. In fact, prior to the Board’s vote for coeducation, many alumnae offered to help with student recruitment, but their offers were rebuffed. Early in 2012, the administration identified the target enrollment as 1000 students, a number cited in the 2010–2015 Strategic Plan as enabling Wilson to reach its “…programmatic goals and achieve financial equilibrium” [p. 2], while preserving “…the core, undergraduate, residential women’s college” [p. 3]. During the Commission process, however, the administration raised the enrollment goal three times until, by December 2012, the target was more than 1750 students.***

According to the College’s own projections in 2012, Wilson could have enrolled 1325 students by implementing changes recommended by the Commission that did not include coeducation across all programs.

What is the publicized enrollment target today? 1000 students. Has any member of the current Board of Trustees asked why Wilson’s enrollment target has plummeted from the target of 1750 total students, which was the fundamental reason Trustees voted for coeducation?

Attorney Maguschak spoke again and focused on the 1970 and 1993 amendments to Wilson’s Articles of Incorporation. She said amendments to the 1970 Articles represented a fundamental change that made Wilson coeducational, and said nothing in the 1993 amendments to the Articles altered the coeducational status of the college. Therefore, Ms. Maguschak argued, the 2013 proposed changes to the Charter do not represent any fundamental change to the mission of the College because that change already had occurred in 1970.

A third note: In fact, the College never previously implemented, nor intended to implement a move to full coeducation, a point emphasized by the Limited Participants.

Following a brief break, Gretchen Van Ness ’80 introduced the other three Limited Participants, Melissa Behm ’76, Kendal Hopkins ’80, and Paula Tishok ’71. All the Limited Participants argued that, by acting to implement a transition to coeducation across all programs before it received approval from the PDE to do so, the College had violated state law.

Ms. Van Ness read an excerpt from the College’s application to amend the 1970 charter, which states it was superseded entirely by the 1993 amendments, thereby making the 1970 charter null and void. Ms. Van Ness cited language indicating the 2013 amendments proposed by the Board of Trustees would constitute a fundamental change in the charter and mission of the College, and urged the PDE to deny the College’s application to amend the 1993 Articles.

Ms. Behm reviewed portions of the PA Code that are relevant to the authority of the PDE, presented extensive evidence indicating the College never implemented coeducation in the 1970s, and demonstrated the Board of Trustees voted unanimously in 1971 to maintain Wilson’s mission as a women’s college. She also referred to her written testimony, which explains other proposed amendments to the Articles of Incorporation that alter language describing the minimum required number of full-time faculty and the minimum required endowment were not made to comply with state law as Trustees have claimed.

Ms. Hopkins refuted the College’s contention that the 2013 charter changes are trivial, and referred to all the College publications, the website, IRS Form 990s, and other documents that describe Wilson as a women’s college. She characterized men living on campus in 1969 (e.g., during a brief exchange program with Franklin & Marshall College) as an expansion of programs, not an abrogation of Wilson’s original mission, and illustrated in various ways why women’s colleges in the 21st century are not only relevant but are also important.

Ms. Tishok dismantled claims made by President Mistick in 2012 that the College was on a fiscal cliff and explained in detail how, during the Commission process, President Mistick repeatedly increased goals for enrollment in an effort to manipulate the Board of Trustees’ decision on coeducation. Ms. Tishok presented evidence to indicate that projections for enrollment should coeducation be adopted were not based on credible data, and were presented without Board approval. She cited other serious flaws in the process that led the Board of Trustees to vote for coeducation in January 2013.

Ms. Van Ness spoke again and refuted claims by Ms. Maguschak about the meaning of the phrase “without limitation” in the 1993 charter. The phrase does not mean that the College can do whatever it wants, as the College essentially argues. Placed where it is in the charter, the phrase actually means that the College is not limited in doing what must be done to accomplish its purposes. The only phrase in the 1993 charter that refers to any purposes not expressly delineated in the charter is the phrase that mentions the College’s original (1869) purpose, which is to operate a college for women.

The three big surprises of the day occurred after the lunch break.

  1. Ms. Hans asked why the 1970 amendments to Wilson’s charter are valid or invalid. In a startling response, Wilson attorney Maguschak contradicted the College’s extensive and repeated written and oral statements by saying the 1970 charter had no legal significance, but that it was only of historical value. Jaws dropped all over the room. Ms. Maguschak’s statements in the afternoon about the 1970 charter represented a complete reversal of statements she made during the morning session. This reversal also undermined the statements of multiple Trustees over the past several months who have said that Wilson has been coeducational since 1970.
  2. Ms. Hans asked what changes the College had made to implement coeducation before receiving PDE approval on proposed amendments to its charter. Ms. Maguschak said she would let President Mistick respond, but that it was her legal opinion the College did not need to revise its charter in 2013. Nevertheless, she recommended the Board of Trustees do it anyway. President Mistick said the College had set up implementation committees, updated 125 publications, made web design changes, recruited male students, and admitted three commuter male students into the undergraduate program (enrolled in the fall of 2013), made infrastructure improvements, hired a director for health sciences, introduced other academic programs, and filed the change (to coeducation) with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. She added the College has Middle States approval to make a substantive change in its mission contingent on PDE approval.

    In repeated efforts by Ms. Hans to secure clear answers from President Mistick about the admission of men, Ms. Hans reframed her question to ask about the status in the upcoming academic year of the three male students who had enrolled as commuters in the fall of 2013. President Mistick again did not respond directly; she also skirted Ms. Hans’ direct question about enrollment. President Mistick talked instead about the number of applications, which she said had risen to 1100 (from 546 in 2013), with about 19 percent male applicants for the fall of 2014. She did not indicate how many of those students were commuters over the age of 22 who had applied to the Adult Degree Program, applicants for the Master’s degree programs, or applicants for the new, online program that allows registered nurses to earn a B.S. degree. President Mistick said the goal of “160 students” in the incoming class is on track, but did not specify how many would be full-time undergraduates. When Ms. Hans asked about dorms for male students, President Mistick described recent infrastructure changes as being necessary, and said they had nothing to do with coeducation.

    Ms. Hans asked, “How does the college justify taking these actions prior to receiving approval from PDE?” Ms. Maguschak stated that President Mistick had asked if the Articles of Incorporation permitted coeducation, and that she and her legal colleagues had opined that the 1993 charter permitted the College to begin to recruit men and implement the transition to coeducation without revising the Articles, but said again they recommended the college go ahead and make changes.

    Ms. Van Ness referred to language in the PA Code that makes clear Wilson’s premature actions in implementing coeducation are illegal. She also pointed to a section of the PA Code indicating the PDE has the authority to preserve educational options that benefit the Commonwealth. When this question was directed to Ms. Maguschak, her response was that she did not believe the PDE has the authority to tell a college that it can or cannot be coeducational.

  3. After the hearing concluded, President Mistick spoke to the press, including Ben Allen of WITF public radio, who reported:
    “In fact, Mistick says no matter what the state decides, it’s going ahead with admitting more men to its undergraduate college.”
    This statement, coupled with Attorney Maguschak’s claim that the 1993 Articles of Incorporation make it possible for the Wilson administration to proceed with changes to make the College fully coeducational, amounts to a complete refutation of any authority the PDE has in this matter.

    This is an interesting claim, given that Wilson has requested its accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, to approve a “significant change” to the College Articles of Incorporation, and Middle States has indicated they will base their decision on that of the PDE.

The next step for the Limited Participants and the College is for each to provide a “factual and legal” response to the PDE by August 1, and await the decision of the Department.

Some of the alumnae present at the PDE hearing
Photo credit: Wendy Adams ’93 (click for a larger image)

The alumnae turnout on June 16 was a wonderful demonstration of common purpose. In addition, many people have posted comments on the Facebook sites, sent tweets, written emails, and found other ways to voice their support for retaining Wilson’s core mission as a women’s college. All of these efforts make a difference. Let’s continue to work together on behalf of our alma mater.

Firmly pledged to love and honor…

Deborah Barnes ’71
Melissa Behm ’76
Kendal Hopkins ’80
Nicole Noll ’03
Carol Noon ’87

P.S. The Alumnae Call Center is still open. Give us a ring!

* L. Jill Hans’ “rules” for the PDE informational hearing held on June 16, 2014, in Harrisburg, PA, were that there would be no give and take between the two sides, there would be no closing statements, and all participants would need to stick to topics they had addressed in their written testimony. She said post-hearing statements should be no more than 10 pages in length and were due on August 1, 2014. She indicated the PDE might request additional materials.

** The Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College held their first on-campus meeting in May 2012, then divided into five working groups that met by teleconference throughout the summer. The Commission did not have time to meet again as whole or issue final recommendations, so sent a lengthy compilation of working group reports and strategic ideas to the president, and asked for more time to meet and deliberate. She denied their request and, in November 2012, sent her own recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

*** Important to note is that Wilson does not have the capacity for 1750 or even 1500 students. The dining room is too small, not enough parking spaces exist on campus, there are too few dorm rooms, and classroom space is insufficient.

The 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

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