News

Down to interpreting one law in Wilson College's co-ed fight

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Jun 17, 2014 4:00 AM

(Harrisburg) -- Testimony in a nearly day-long hearing Monday at the state Department of Education largely focused on the intricate legal matters at play, as Wilson College, in Chambersburg, plans to admit men as undergraduate residential students this fall.

Wilson has admitted only women as undergrads going back to 1869.

Depending who you ask, the hearing either determines the future of Wilson, or has no bearing on the college's decision to admit men.

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About 100 people, mostly women, fill the sparsely decorated Honors Room on the first floor of the Pennsylvania Department of Education offices in downtown Harrisburg.

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Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Wilson College President Barbara Mistick asserts changes need to be made to keep the College financially stable.

Portraits of past Education Secretaries hang high up a 15 foot wall, and three department officials sit at a simple table at the front of the room.

The argument confronting them is straightforward enough: should the state allow the change from all-women’s college to co-ed go through? 

"There's a market reality. And what we're doing is really addressing the market reality, and understanding that the great programs that we've offered for female students can also serve male population as well," says Wilson College President Barbara Mistick.

With an enrollment of about 700, Mistick argues men are needed to boost class sizes and make the school financially stable.

Wilson asserts changes to its charter in 1993 already gives it the right to accept men as undergrads. 

This is where things get tricky. In pushing for the state to deny the charter change, opponents like Gretchen Van Ness want a broad reading of the agency's powers.

Says Van Ness: "What we think the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been saying, it's made violation of this statute a summary offense. It's a criminal offense, $300 fine, 30 days in jail, but you don't do that unless this is an important public policy. The Legislature has said we want the Department of Education to have a role, and this role is important."

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Photo by Ben Allen/witf

The hearing at the Pennsylvania Department of Education featured testimony from 8 speakers.

Wilson’s attorneys say the state only has the right to deny changes for a private school if it would violate state law. Basically, a strict interpretation.

Wilson does acknowledge it has started to adjust its buildings, and hired two coaches for men’s sports teams, before the state considered its request.

Another opponent, Melissa Behm, says if the state allows the move, it gives other schools precedent to make changes without any state oversight.

"I think that's the only way to read the statute, that that's what it's intended to say."

The alumnae protesting the decision don’t take this lightly: they’ve hired a Washington D.C. public relations firm with clients like Amnesty International and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence to organize their efforts as well.

"I think it’s a real tough situation," says Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute based in Virginia Beach. He’s watched this kind of issue spread nationwide for years.

"This is a school that has a history, and the alumni, of course, take to heart their history, and they don’t want to see things changed."

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Remember, Wilson College was once about to close up in 1979 before a judge overruled its Board of Trustees and kept it open. Alumnae swept in to support it, raising more than one million dollars. One might look at such a case and ask why not try to reverse this decision too? President Mistick says she doesn’t fear the fallout if the decision favors the school.

"There’s been a lot of debate on that topic. But what I have seen during my tenure as President, is that alumnae have been very supportive of institution, and what they want first and foremost is to see us be a thriving institution."

In fact, Mistick says no matter what the state decides, it’s going ahead with admitting more men to its undergraduate college. There’s already three commuter students, and plans for a men’s basketball team this winter. The college’s attorney points to the 1993 charter in pushing forward.

Opponents don’t deny changes have come to Wilson, they just think energy should have been focused on keeping the school all women’s. 

"They hired a new outside consulting firm to work with admissions, they're spending more on radio ads, you've seen the billboards probably that have gone up locally." says Melissa Behm

She argues the admissions office seemed to only be interested in marketing it as a co-ed school. 

"There's a much more intensive effort, more radio and billboards, much intensive effort. If they put those efforts toward remaining a women’s college, I think you'd see increased applications as well. I'm sure you would."

The Education Department would have to adopt a broad-reading of its authority to factor statements like that in when making its decision, and commission members weren’t tipping their hands. It can request documents from both sides until August 1, but there’s no timetable on when a decision might come.

Yet the fight may not be over. Opponents say they have a lawyer standing by in Franklin County, ready to sue if it comes to that.

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