Seeking Enrollment Boost, Wilson College Will Admit Men (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

January 13, 2013, By Lawrence Biemiller

Wilson College’s Board of Trustees voted on Sunday afternoon to begin accepting men to the college’s traditional undergraduate program and to adopt a series of other recommendations aimed at broadening the liberal-arts institution’s educational offerings, improving its facilities, and strengthening its position in the admissions market.

The decision to admit men came over the anguished protests of some alumnae and students, but with the support of others. The goal is to increase enrollment, now below 700, to about 1,500 by 2020. The college began the current academic year with 316 women in the traditional undergraduate program and 379 men and women in the adult-degree program.

Consultants told the college that only a tiny fraction of high-school women would consider attending a single-sex institution, but that going coed could increase the number of women applying, in addition to attracting men. Only about 45 women’s colleges remain, depending on what criteria are used to define them.

Wilson, with an endowment of more than $60-million, ran deficits in three of the past four years and has seen enrollment remain stagnant. It faces a looming budget hurdle in 2019, when it will have to begin making payments of about $1-million a year on the
principal of a loan it took out to build a science complex that opened in 2009.

The trustees decided to admit men to the traditional undergraduate program this coming fall as commuter students, but they won’t be offered space in the residence halls until the fall of 2014. In addition, the college will add programs in health sciences and
renovate several campus buildings, including the library, which is closed. The college will also trim its tuition and adopt a loan-buy back program, the details of which have not yet been made public.

The recommendations were the result of a months-long process in which a commission appointed by Wilson’s president, Barbara K. Mistick, delved deeply into the college’s strengths and weaknesses and debated a wide range of possible changes.

The 23 commission members included trustees, faculty members, alumnae, students, and staff members, and devoted hundreds of hours to research and meetings before forwarding their ideas to Ms. Mistick. She, in turn, settled on a package of 12 suggestions that she presented to the board at a meeting at the end of November.

Some board members, however, balked at being asked to vote so quickly on such significant changes, and the board put off a decision until Sunday. Alumnae and students opposed to coeducation took advantage of the delay to continue their campaign against admitting men, holding meetings, draping campus buildings with signs made out of bedsheets, and selling T-shirts online with the slogan “Empowering Women Since 1869.”

Meanwhile, faculty and staff members waited nervously for a final decision. The college’s next step, administrators said on Sunday afternoon, will be to appoint a committee to put into effect the changes adopted by the board.