"They took the easy way out," Wilson senior Ariel Huffman said to friends while crying as the decision was read out loud on the lawns of Wilson to nearly 50 students and alumnae who had gathered to support their beloved school.
Announced via a press release on the college website and Twitter account shortly after 5 p.m., the women who had gathered expressed feelings of anger, sadness and frustration.
"I'm extremely disappointed in the decision announced today and I'm extremely disappointed in the way the decision was communicated to us," said Melissa Behm, a 1976 alum. "They have deprived future generations of the education and leadership Wilson has given 143 other classes."
Meeting in a special session Sunday, the board approved a set of recommendations from Wilson President Barbara K. Mistick. The measures were passed in an effort to rejuvenate the private all-women's college as well as potentially double enrollment over the next 10 years.
"I'm very confident that the course the board approved today is the right framework for the future and will send us on a successful path," Mistick said. "Over time there is a need for the college to change to ensure the long-term viability of the college. That's what I believe our trustees have done today."
The board's vote was a very "emotional issue," said John Gibb,chairman of the board of trustees, but one that was made with a lot of deliberation and a lot of data. The board was originally slated to vote on Dec. 1 but instead postponed the decision.
"We're looking at where we were and where we wanted to go," he said. "Enrollment in the College for Women has never gone over 400 in the last 40 years. We're a very small college and I think that to be sustainable, I think, you need to have a larger (enrollment)."
This new blueprint was based on strategic initiatives from the Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College, a 23-member panel, and includes three main points: admitting men, reducing tuition and expanding degree programs.
Beginning in fall 2013, traditional age men will be allowed to attend Wilson College as commuters. The college will then admit male residential students in fall 2014. Currently, men age 22 and older are allowed to enroll as commuter students and make up about 11 percent of the student body.
"Now that the board has made these decisions today we'll certainly get the word out as soon as possible. I'm already confident that we'll be able to make this transition in co-education," Mistick said. "Long-term, we hope that our enrollment will mirror what you see in higher education now, which is 60 percent female and 40 percent male."
Tuition at Wilson College will drop by $5,000 to just more than $23,000 a year, an effort that not only counters trends in private colleges but is also something they hope will attract more students.
"Tuition in private colleges has gone sky high," Gibb said. "The question now for many Americans is how affordable is college and we need to adjust to that."
Not just holding the line on tuition but actually reducing it sends a message to prospective students that a Wilson education is affordable for anyone, Mistick said.
Additionally, expanding degree programs, such as offering "hot vocational item" health science programs will draw a different set of students to Wilson, Gibb said.
"It is important to us, too, as we add more students we want to make sure we have the right mix of programming for those students," Mistick said.
Although many of the initiatives passed were encouraging steps forward to keep Wilson a viable institution, alumnae did not agree with all the decisions made by the board of trustees.
A 1980 alum of the school, Nan Laudenslager remembers the 1979 trustee vote to close the school, which was also based on continued declines in enrollment and financial giving.
"I think they mismanaged it again," she said. "I mean, how do you get like this?"
Others, such as Jean Weller, a 1971 alum, were frustrated that the trustees did not speak to those in attendance directly. Earlier in the afternoon, alumni had gathered inside Warfield Hall to hear the decision but were told by security only students, trustees and administration were allowed inside.
"They stated it would be announced and 45 people came to Wilson to wait for this decision to be announced and the board chose not to speak directly to us," Weller said.
Prior to the vote announcement, alumnae had been hoping that men would not be admitted just yet but instead the school would be allowed to work on other alternatives.
"The commission had some really good ideas, but we'd like a chance to do some of these things," said Kendal Hopkins, a 1980 alum.
During an emergency meeting of the Wilson College Alumnae Association on Jan. 5, four task forces were created in conjunction with the school to look at admission, retention, fundraising and marketing while holding off on admitting men.
"That's a huge vote of confidence in the college by its alumnae," said Gretchen Van Ness, a 1980 alum.
At the end of the day, Mistick said the college wants and hopes that all of the alums will embrace the changes and continue support the college's success.
"I know this is an emotional decision today, but I hope in the weeks that come our alums will continue to stand with us," she said. "I feel confident they're going to want the college to survive long-term."
While some may not agree, the vote to include men is a step forward for the college as it strives to continue throughout the 21st century, said Dr. Larry Shillock, associate professor of English.
"The college does quite a few things well," he said. "The problem is colleges today are tuition driven and tuition driven colleges need to cast a wider net. Women's colleges by their nature cast a narrow net. A single-sex residential college is a 19th century idea. Imagine trying to sell a 19th century idea to a 21st century student."
Marketing the college has become "somewhat difficult" over the years and it has had problems attracting students, Gibb said. Only 94 students enrolled this past school year.
"We've actively marketed the college," he said. "Could we have increased enrollment by a stronger marketing campaign? Yeah, maybe. But could we have done it in the numbers we needed to be sustainable, probably not."
Samantha Cossick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 262-4762.
Studying at Wilson
Current enrollment at Wilson College: 695 students
- 316 in the College for Women
- 305 in the Adult Degree Program
- 74 in the graduate programs
Wilson College history
1868 - Sarah Wilson pledges $30,000 for a women's college proposed by two Presbyterian pastors.
1869 - Wilson College is chartered.
1870 - The college opens with 23 residential students and 42 non-residential. Tuition was $350.
1875 - Enrollment is 83.
1887 - Enrollment is 164.
1895 - Main Hall is completed after disastrous fire a year earlier.
1918 - Campus is quarantined for a flu epidemic.
1946 - Men are accepted as non-resident students.
1970s - Wilson acquires 200-acre campus of Penn Hall Junior College.
1979 - Wilson trustees vote to close the school, but a judge overturns the decision. Equine studies and veterinary medical technology programs will be added.
1982 - Men can earn degrees for the first time through Wilson's continuing education program.
1996 - The college offer on-campus, residential education for single mothers with children.