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Near-closure strengthened Wilson, officials said

May 25, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The near-closing of Wilson College 25 years ago pushed college officials and faculty to re-evaluate their mission and curriculum, college leaders said Monday.

Because the college came so close to closing, "it's a young institution again and it has the advantages and disadvantages of that," said Wanda Finney, college archivist.

Founded in 1869 as one of the first colleges for women in the country, Wilson has grown and flourished in the quarter-century since the nationally reported events of spring 1979.

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With enrollment at 120 students and finances on shaky ground, the college's board of trustees voted on Feb. 19, 1979, to close the all-female school at the end of the school year. Margaret Waggoner had been president for almost four years.

Current President Lorna Duphiney Edmundson said that the near-closing had a lot to do with "the college's adaptation - or lack of it - to changing conditions, to what the president's and trustees' roles should be."

Almost immediately after the trustees' decision, the Save Wilson Committee was formed by 16 alumnae from the classes of 1926 through 1973 and filed suit in Franklin County Court to stop the closing, Edmundson said.

On the afternoon of Friday, May 25, 1979, two days before what was to be Wilson College's last commencement, a crowd of students and faculty assembled on the college green. English professor James Applegate stood on the steps of the college library and read now-retired Judge John Keller's decision to the group, Finney said.

Virginia Anderson-Stojanovic, professor of classics and fine arts, recalled that day.

"We'd been keeping up with the hearing, but we weren't sure whether the decision was going to go for Wilson or not, so people really were excited and also fearful, and we made the announcement and everybody was happy and cheering. They rang the bell in Edgar Hall," she said.

"Enrollment was still low in the fall, because a lot of faculty had taken jobs elsewhere, and some students had made arrangements to transfer. Lots of things were up in the air, but a number of people stepped in and taught classes," Anderson-Stojanovic said.

Immediately after the decision, the case was written up in professional journals and received coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Edmundson said.

"It's the only case in the country that we know of where the board voted to close the college and the alumnae took the board to court and won and kept the college open," she said. "In the educational community at that time it was considered intrusive for a judge to rule in academic affairs."

The mid-1970s was a time of stress in higher education, Edmundson said.

"There were an expanding number of new colleges, the birth of the community school movement, and difficult economic times. The college had suffered from those, but was not bereft of resources. Students, faculty, alumnae and the business community rallied around" the school, she said.

"It was the beginning of an era when the roles of president and trustees came under a microscope," she said.

Trusteeships became less an honorary position and more one in which the trustees had to be knowledgeable about complex issues in higher education, she said.

After the court decision, Don Bletz, associate professor of political science, stepped in as interim president, then served as president from 1979 to 1981. Changes were made on the board of trustees.

Finney said that after considering the evidence presented at the hearing, Keller decided Wilson College had not reached the point of no return.

"It had been managed badly, and he wanted to give it a chance to be managed well. He wasn't ready to say the doors had to be closed," Finney said.

That decision gave many students an educational experience they would not otherwise have had, she said.

During Dr. Mary-Linda Merriam's presidency from 1981 to 1991, academic programs in such fields as veterinary medical technology and equestrian studies were started, and the continuing education division began.

Enrollment grew, and the Stand As One campaign provided the resources for Wilson to become competitive, Edmundson said.

Between 1991 and 2001, Gwendolyn Jensen's presidency saw the start of the Women with Children program and the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living. Both have brought national recognition to Wilson.

The Forever More Campaign, which hoped to raise $10 million, raised $57 million, Edmundson said. Wilson also began a partnership with two women's colleges in Korea, under which 12 Korean students study at Wilson each year.

The school's mission statement was revised in 2002 to include a commitment to expanding programs in the international community and to environmental sustainability, she said.

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