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Wilson College students balk at co-ed idea

November 24, 2012|By ROXANN MILLER | roxann.miller@herald-mail.com
  • Protest signs at South Hall Dormitory at Wilson College.
By Roxann Miller

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Almost as soon as Wilson College broached the idea of making the women’s liberal arts college co-educational to make the college financially sustainable for the future, students took action.

Signs and banners including “Better Dead Than Co-Ed,” “ Shh ... I hear Sarah (Wilson) rolling in her Grave” and “You Thought We Were Kidding ... The Jokes on You!” hung from windows, balconies and beams across campus.

Many of the protesters said permitting men to enroll at the all-women’s college would detract from the campus’ long-standing traditions.

Currently, 11.6 percent of the 695 Wilson students are men. Those men are enrolled in adult degree programs and the employee tuition program, according to school officials.

The co-ed proposal, if accepted, would allow male commuter students to begin attending class at Wilson in the fall of 2013 and begin residing on campus in the 2014-15 academic year, said Brian Speer, vice president of marketing and communications for Wilson College.

Senior Sarah McGuckin said the Wilson experience would disappear if the campus went co-ed.

“It wouldn’t be the same experience I had,” McGuckin said. “It just would be a different school if it went co-ed. The buildings would be here, but the environment in itself would be different.”

But Speer said something has to be done to ensure the college’s survival.

“There is a financial cliff. In 2019, we have to start paying principal on the debt,” Speer said. “If we don’t turn around our enrollment numbers and begin working towards operating on a level annual budget, the college could close.”

Faced with the possibility of closing the college without making some changes, the organization put together a 23-member Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College.

The commission made several recommendations, including the co-ed option, to increase enrollment to 1,500 students by 2020.

The recommendations were given to Wilson President Barbara Mistick on Nov. 12. She will present her recommendations to the Board of Trustees at a meeting on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Any action is expected to be taken by the board on Dec. 1.

Speer said the commission offered a number of solutions to help with Wilson’s financial sustainability, but the co-ed recommendation would make the biggest financial impact.

“If Wilson does nothing, our annual budgetary deficit gets to somewhere around $5 million a year,” he said. “If the school implements co-education, we can reach just under a balanced budget in 2020, and in 2021, we have a surplus budget. Our endowment remains level.”

The final cost analysis would be to implement the commission’s other recommendations, but not co-ed.

“In that case, we will have in 2020 a budget deficit of $2.5 million for the year, and a cumulative debt of $26.9 million, and our endowment will have been reduced to $17.8 million,” he said.

Janelle Wills, Wilson College government association representative and student representative to the commission, said students are protesting because they feel their voices haven’t been heard on a number of campus issues.

“Students feel that their voice has been ignored,” she said. “I feel they have had a lot of meetings, but there has been nothing done about what the students gave them (as suggestions).”

She said the students understand that college officials are between a “rock and a hard place.”

“But they are also trying to let the financial numbers that they received weigh against the Wilson experience,” she said. “I don’t think they are putting any weight or value into that.”

While many of the protesters and signs are highly charged, Wills said most of the students want to be heard.

“I think there’s been a lot of issues for many years and students are finally fed up with it,” she said. “They really wanted to do something and remind faculty and administration that students have a strong presence on campus and they need to be heard and whenever we say something, action needs to be taken about it.”

Senior Elizabeth Angel doesn’t understand why Wills is the only student representative on the commission.

“It’s about us being heard. There are a lot of decisions being made right now and we don’t feel as though our voices are being heard,” Angel said. “I don’t think it (co-ed) would be the worst thing ever, but tradition-wise, we’re a very traditional college. I think the students here are a little afraid of how that will be impacted.”

She doesn’t think co-ed is the only option and that the commission was shortsighted in its recommendations.

Senior Lauren Kershner worries about the possibility of graduating from a college that could close.

“I’d like to see us stay women’s centered and stay where we are now, but I understand the need to be able to grow and we need to be able to survive,” Kershner said. “To do that, we might have to change the way things are on campus, and if that’s what the commission feels needs to happen and if that’s what the board of trustees feels needs to happen, I’ll stand behind that.”

She is not just concerned about her future, but recent alumnae and how it will affect their job possibilities to have graduated from a defunct school.

“If Wilson closes, how is that going to affect my degree or a job?” she said.

Junior Katie Snyder said the campus is divided over the co-ed issue.

“I am in support of whatever is going to make Wilson successful and help us stay open,” Snyder said.

Based on the statistics provided by the commission, Snyder said she thinks creating a co-ed campus is what will move Wilson forward.

“I think one of the biggest things that students don’t realize about going co-ed is that it is going to draw in more women rather than men,” she said. “I don’t see us opening up to men and going co-ed and a swarm of men come in here taking over Wilson.”

With less than a week left until the board is expected to make a decision on the recommendations, Speer said the college supports the students in their expression of opinions.

“All of these decisions are not being taken lightly and nothing has been predetermined,” Speer said. “There is an ongoing conversation about how to move Wilson forward so the college can survive and can thrive.”

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