Two Wilson Phoenix soccer players in action during a game.
Photo credit: Rachael Kinley ’13

Rebuttal to President Mistick’s letter to alumnae of March 1, 2013

To members of the Wilson College community and friends of the College:

Thank you all for your support of, and many contributions to, Wilson College over the years. Wilson has benefitted greatly from this collaborative effort, as evidenced by its 144-year, proud history as a women’s liberal arts college, and its more recent history of offering graduate and adult degree programs available to men and women.

This letter, written by a group of Wilson College alumnae,*is prompted by correspondence dated March 1, 2013, signed by President Barbara K. Mistick, and sent to Wilson alumnae. Accompanying the letter were two documents: 1) a Wilson Today sheet and 2) an enclosure entitled “Decision: Positioning Wilson to Thrive, FAQ – 02/22/13” (FAQ is an acronym for Frequently Asked Questions). A careful reading of these documents reveals discrepancies between the enclosures as well as with other information in emails, news reports, and opinion pieces authored by College employees and on the Wilson College web site. We have yet to talk to an alumna who does not question the content after reading the letter and enclosures. Disturbed by the information that is being mailed out (at some considerable expense) to alumnae, we write to point out some of these discrepancies, challenge the accuracy and consistency of the documents mailed to us on March 1st, and convey key alumnae concerns about what is happening at Wilson.

Let’s begin with the point that, whether we agree or not, we expect to be clearly communicated with about the co-ed decision and its timing and consequences for the College. We do not expect to be subject to inconsistent claims and assertions.

Is Wilson already coeducational across all programs?

The March 1st FAQ enclosure states, “Wilson has become a fully coed institution since January 13, 2013. On February 5, 2013 we admitted our first traditional male undergraduate student.” In contrast, the Wilson Today enclosure says Wilson will, “Admit men across all constituencies and allow male students to reside on campus as of the 2014 academic year.” A January 14 news release posted to the Wilson College web site states, “Under the action approved by the board, Wilson—which has a residential college for women that allows men age 22 and older to attend as commuter students—will begin enrolling traditional-age male students as commuters in fall 2013.”

Although President Mistick says at the beginning of the March 1st letter that she wants “to provide some final perspective on the process,” the letter instead opens with this kind of confusion. Is Wilson already coeducational across all programs? Or did the trustees announce that Wilson will become fully coeducational in the Fall of 2013 or in the Fall of 2014? Based on available evidence, the statement from the January 14 news release appears to be the most accurate, that is, that male students will be allowed to enroll in the Fall of 2013 and become residential students in the Fall of 2014, but as these excerpts reveal, the news is not being presented consistently. Alumnae are left to wonder who on campus is making decisions and with what authority?

Furthermore, has the Board of Trustees completed all the actions that it must take to “transform” Wilson into a fully coeducational institution? Was a Board vote on January 13, 2013, all the action necessary to legally change the chartered 144 years of Wilson’s history as a women’s college into a coeducational environment?

What recommendations have been approved by the Board of Trustees, and how will the College pay for these initiatives?

Concerning is the lack of a definitive list of final recommendations presented to the Board of Trustees. Alumnae were not told (nor do we think were any other constituencies told) what recommendations were submitted to the Board. Furthermore, we believe those recommendations were made by the President and not generated by the Commission. Now, still not knowing what the Board was asked to vote on, the lists we are given in the Wilson Today and FAQ enclosures do not align. The FAQ sheet states: “The additional eight recommendations have been accepted by the administration and will be implemented.” The list that follows has seven (not eight) items, and the sentence before speaks of “five of the twelve recommendations.” The Wilson Today sheet calls out 23 bulleted items as the “Plan Summary.” So, just what are the elements of the “transformative plan” and how many elements does the plan include? Does anyone really know if the College cannot communicate a clear list?

The Wilson Today enclosure states “Wilson College and its Board of Trustees have set in motion a transformative plan.” This is followed by a “Plan Summary” that includes in the Infrastructure section, among other items, “Fund the existing $10 million in deferred maintenance” and “Include $2 million for depreciation in the annual operating budget.” The FAQ enclosure, however, states that these two steps are “subject to Board approval.” We have not been told if these steps have been approved by the Board. And how will the College pay for infrastructure repair? Will information about funding these initiatives be communicated to alumnae and other interested parties?

Further confusing in the FAQ sheet is the statement that “Only five of the twelve recommendations required board approval because they carried budget implications.” How could it be that this list of “other commission recommendations” does not carry budget implications? What are the associated anticipated costs to budget? Revenue and enrollment figures were the focus during the open forums in the fall. How can the College pay for all the changes the President wants to make?

Additionally, the last item in the list states, “Add distinctive academic programs that demonstrate high positive enrollment impact.” It is our understanding that it is the Board of Trustees’ responsibility “to review and approve proposed changes to the College’s academic programs and other enterprises consistent with the College’s mission, plans and financial resources” [source: Wilson College Board of Trustees By-Laws]. Why is this item on a list of actions that do not need Board approval?

Offered up such confusing presentations of key information, alumnae do not feel that the Commission process, characterized by President Mistick in the March 1st letter as “in fact, open and transparent” and undertaken with “the proper amount of time to gather the necessary information and feedback,” has been conducted thoughtfully, thoroughly, or openly. We are dismayed at the rush–particularly in the face of new evidence that the portrayal of the financial crisis was exaggerated during the decision-making process (see details later in this letter)–to reach decisions that have such profound impact on a respected institution of higher education long committed to the education of women.

Misleading information characterizes the March 1st letter

The third paragraph in President Mistick’s letter of March 1st deserves a sentence-by-sentence dissection.

  1. “During this process, the College carefully considered the possible effects on fundraising that the decision to move to coeducation might have.”

    Wilson alumnae were never surveyed to determine if a decision for coeducation would influence how or whether they give to the College. The most appropriate and accurate way to “carefully consider” what will happen to fundraising efforts at Wilson is to ask Wilson alumnae. We know from comments submitted to us during the Double It! fund drive that many alumnae said they would reduce or stop giving to the College if Wilson went coed. Is the College prepared if the Wilson Fund, which currently contributes more that $1 million to the College’s annual operating budget, brings in significantly less money in 2013, 2014, and beyond?

  2. The second sentence of paragraph three in the March 1st letter states, “An impressive, grass-roots alumnae effort raised $81,000 from donors on both sides of the issue.”

    The juxtaposition of this sentence with the one before and after in this paragraph implies that the Double It! Matching Fund was intended to be a long-term effort and fell far short in addressing the financial needs of the college. In actuality, Double It! was conceived as a good-faith effort to demonstrate to the Board of Trustees that in just a matter of weeks alumnae could collaborate closely with Wilson staff to show the depth and breadth of their support for Wilson. The campaign was launched at on December 16, 2012, and by January 11, 2013, it had amassed the impressive statistics shown below. While contributions came in from classes from the 1940s to the present day, particularly notable is that 29 of the 30 classes from the 1980s–2010s (a period sometimes maligned for not giving) donated, and the largest single donation came from a 1980s alumna. The Double It! fund shattered the myth that the classes of the 1980s don’t give. Alumnae stood up for Wilson, and we raised $81,808 in 25 days.

  3. Sentence three of the same paragraph indicates: “While this showed the potential of peer-to-peer fundraising, the effort did not even begin to address the financial needs of the College.”

    Indeed, overlooked in President Mistick’s March 1st letter is the important evidence that emerged from this brief campaign that alumnae from all decades are interested in and willing to contribute to Wilson when they are approached in a meaningful way. The statistics gathered by the Office of College Advancement, with whom the alumnae Double It! leaders collaborated, are impressive:

    Breakdown of alumnae donors
    Decade # of donors # of classes % of living alumnae
    1940s 4 4 2.74
    1950s 9 8 1.74
    1960s 64 10 5.17
    1970s 41 9 4.03
    1980s 46 10 8.19
    1990s 25 9 2.15
    2000s 36 10 1.18
    2010s 4 3 1.57

    228  Alumnae
         1  Current student
       13  Other folks (e.g., parents, sisters, partners, Wilson staff)
    Types of donors
      1  Anonymous donor
    21  First-time donors (never given to the College)
    51  Reacquired donors (not given in the past 5 years)
    94  Frequent donors (given periodically in the past 5 years)
    75  Regular donors (given each of the past 5 years)
    The Double It! campaign was conducted during the holiday season. On February 6, 2013, President Mistick sent a well-crafted thank-you letter to the Pines & Maples team, which said, in part: “I would like to personally thank you for your outstanding work garnering support for gifts to the Wilson Fund for the ‘Double-It’ Matching Fund. Raising $81,808 from 242 alumnae in 25 days is a remarkable grassroots effort which would not have been successful without you. To engage alumnae from every decade and many class years, including 21 new and 51 reacquired donors, as well as encourage alumnae who had already made a gift this fiscal year to make an additional gift to the Wilson Fund, is extraordinary.” This is yet another example of striking inconsistencies in the tone and impact of messages from the College.

  4. The fourth sentence of the third paragraph of the March 1st letter states: “To give you some perspective about this, in order to avert coeducation, the annual fund would need to raise an additional $5.7 million every year on top of the current $1.3 million goal that the College and our alumnae base struggle to generate annually.”

    The problems in this statement are egregious. First, it is not the obligation of alumnae to balance the operating budget of the College year after year. In fact, the tone and implication of this sentence seem more likely to deter alumnae giving than to encourage it. Most unfortunately, what this sentence really does is to set up a fallacious quid pro quo that insults every alumna’s intelligence.

    • First, the Wilson Fund is not designed to raise all the monies necessary to balance the operating budget of the College. Alumnae donations to the Wilson Fund are unrestricted, and the College uses the money for whatever purposes it chooses. The concept of helping current students enjoy what we received while at Wilson is alive and vibrant among alumnae. But the College should be planning to reduce its dependency on the Wilson Fund for defraying a significant portion of its operating cost. Classes from the 1980s are much smaller in size than classes from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and College expectations about their ability to give should be adjusted accordingly.
    • Second, it is not the case that additional funds are needed to “avert coeducation.” Obviously, the College would benefit from additional funds and additional students, but there is no proof that coeducation will bring in the additional revenues to solve the College’s financial challenges.
    • Third, the notion that Wilson needs an “additional $5.7 million every year on top of the current $1.3 million goal” remains unsubstantiated by other communications from the College. Statements President Mistick made during her WITF interview, elsewhere in the media, and to college constituencies do not support this idea of a $7 million annual operating deficit shared with the alumnae in this March 1st letter.

The fourth paragraph of President Mistick’s letter indicates that “the markets group [of the Commission] studied every women’s college in the country and had confidential, peer-to-peer conversations with all who would make themselves available.” The phrasing of this statement is misleading in its characterization of the comprehensiveness of the study completed. We contacted several of the women’s colleges the Commission markets group said they had been unable to reach. We had no difficulty finding staff willing to talk with us. These women’s colleges all reported a trend of increasing applications and enrollments, important data not made available to alumnae and others during open meetings of the Commission. It is clear that women’s colleges continue to contribute in significant ways and provide a critical option to young women preparing for their adult lives.

Paragraph five of President Mistick’s March 1st letter includes an extract from a message that former President Jensen sent to current and former members of the Board of Trustees. Ms. Jensen’s letter indicated that it is the vision of College leadership to provide an education for the “shy person, the person lacking in self confidence [with] personal attention, encouragement to take leadership roles, and personal space to grow.” As we heard from one alumna, “I find this very denigrating.” Wilson has always attracted smart, capable young women who graduate to become smarter and more capable. Certainly some students make the transition to adult life more slowly than others, but this happens at every college. Wilson can and should attract the best and the brightest students. And, contrary to current College practice, Wilson should expand and strengthen its recruiting efforts to engage students across the United States and around the world. Instead, Wilson focuses on recruiting students from its geographical region, and then contends the applicant pool is limited.

Finally, the March 1st letter from President Mistick offers no “thank you” for the important contributions alumnae make each year via the Wilson Fund, other gift giving, and volunteered time. Indeed, this letter opens with no traditional salutation of “Dear Wilson College Alumnae,” but just “Wilson College Alumnae.” Is it an announcement, then? There is no true invitation to share our thoughts, to give of our time, to participate actively in Wilson. There is, instead, an expressed hope with the vague notion that alumnae “will find ways to remain involved with Wilson or to re-engage with the College at a later time.”

Is Wilson’s debt a serious problem or not?

During the Fall of 2012, participants who attended open meetings of the Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College (Commission) heard a great deal about the dire financial circumstances of Wilson, the burden of the $31 million debt, and $10 million in deferred maintenance costs. Yet, during her radio interview with Scott LaMar of WITF (Harrisburg’s National Public Radio station, March 5, 2013), President Mistick stated that “$31 million is not … unreasonable”; it “enables us to build” and the “primary way it came about … [was] the Science Center.”

Alumnae are struck by the startlingly different characterizations of the debt in these public forums. Is the $31 million debt incurred by building the new Science Center an enormous financial burden, or isn’t it? Is the College facing a “fiscal cliff” (as stated in President Mistick’s November 2012 op-ed in the Patriot News, “Wilson College Must Face Stark Reality”) or not? It is disingenuous, at best, to frighten the Wilson community (alumnae, faculty, staff, students) with a “Chicken Little” mentality during 2012 and, then, in 2013, after the Board of Trustees votes to make Wilson coeducational across all programs, reveal that the financial circumstances aren’t really all that bad.

Alumnae and others are left wondering what Wilson’s fiscal reality is. No one questions the fact that the College faces serious financial and enrollment challenges. But the Commission’s five working groups offered many recommendations for addressing these challenges, as did alumnae, students, faculty, and friends of the College who attended the public meetings of the Commission. Why then, did the President and the Board of Trustees make the radical and rushed decision to admit men to all of Wilson’s educational programs? A viable alternative would have been to implement the best recommendations—regardless of their source(s)—and monitor progress for the next three to four years, and then reassess whether a transition to coeducation across all programs really is necessary.

The Board of Trustees should reconsider their decision to eliminate the College for Women

Members of the Board of Trustees are the financial stewards of Wilson College. Now is the time for them to reconsider their decision to make Wilson coeducational across all programs – thereby eliminating the College for Women – and take evidence-based steps to ensure that Wilson is on the best path toward a sustainable and successful future. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that transforming Wilson into a coeducational institution will make the College financially sustainable or, in the near future, will significantly increase enrollment. All the data presented publicly to persuade audiences that Wilson must become fully coeducational are projections, too many of which are based on questionable source material. Instead, a collection of changes – marketing Wilson effectively, improving fundraising efforts, increasing enrollment, retaining significantly more students, strengthening the curriculum, and making the day-to-day operations of the College efficient – will ensure Wilson’s future. All of these changes can be implemented without making the College for Women coeducational.

Wilson has many unrealized opportunities to capitalize on current strengths, pursue new initiatives, and institute change in ways that stay true to Wilson’s core identity as a women’s college. We ask President Mistick to use her talents to enhance the legacy of Wilson College, not to crush it. We ask the Board of Trustees to revoke the co-ed decision, and push forward with other recommendations that will strengthen Wilson and ensure its success as a women’s liberal arts college. We ask all constituencies to collaborate, to see what we can accomplish together before taking Wilson from its place of distinction as a women’s college to the generic and crowded field of coeducation.

Thank you for reading this letter. Thank you for your active interest in the future of Wilson College. Please do what you can to ensure Wilson remains a women’s college.

For our alma mater,

Wilson College Women

*About the authors of this letter: The authors of this letter are actively involved with Wilson College. We include alumnae who have served on the Board of Trustees, as Directors of the Alumnae Association, and as officers in regional Wilson alumnae clubs; we have supported Wilson over the years in many ways, including volunteering in student events, campus initiatives, and fundraising. More recently, several of us founded the alumnae, grassroots Double It! Matching Fund campaign (for which we provided most of the seed money). Some of us helped launch this web site, which includes a Pledge and Recommendation to the Wilson College Board of Trustees, and a News section with links to reports in the media and announcements by constituencies involved in the “shaping the future of Wilson College” initiative. We are Wilson College Women.