Process That Brought Coeducation Was Rushed, Incomplete

To the Editor:

I write in response to “Armed with Data, a Women’s College Tries a Transformation” (The Chronicle, February 4). As the story about the process that led to the Wilson College Board of Trustees’ vote on co-education is told, it is important to understand exactly what did, and did not happen at Wilson. The decision to admit male students was neither necessary nor inevitable, and the process by which that decision was reached was neither data-driven nor “open.” I know because I was there.

I graduated from Wilson College in 1980, after serving as student-body president and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that reversed the Board of Trustees’ decision to close the college in 1979. I served on the Board of Trustees from 2001-2010, with two terms as vice chairperson of the board, co-chairing the Governance Committee, and chairing the Enrollment Management and Student Life Committee. In January 2012, I accepted the invitation to serve on the Commission on Shaping the Future of Wilson College. I welcomed the opportunity to work with colleagues I respected on a task that not only supported the new president, but also promised to bring the Wilson community together in a new way to find new solutions for the challenges she faced. This was going to be hard work, but if we did it right, it would transform the college and realize Wilson’s enormous potential to grow and improve.

But it was not to be. Rather than a thoughtful, considered, and inclusive collaboration of stakeholders, the commission’s process resembled a mad dash to the finish line. Although the commission had a preliminary meeting February, it did not begin its work until May. At the May meeting, the administration and the consultant announced a work schedule that required the commission to develop a comprehensive and immediately implementable set of proposals for fundamental change at the college in less than five months. Moreover, at the end of this five-month period, the schedule called for the president to present her recommendations to the Board of Trustees in mid-November and the board to vote on those recommendations in a special meeting on December 1st. Many of us questioned this rushed and unreasonable timetable. In particular, we questioned the wisdom of the commission doing most of its work during the summer months when students were not on campus and members’ vacation and travel plans had already been made. We learned that similar commissions at other colleges had taken a year to 18 months or more to complete this important and challenging work, and that Boards of Trustees customarily devoted more than a few weeks to consider the recommendations made by similar commissions. But the schedule never changed.

Before the commission had even received its charge and begun the work of identifying areas of possible inquiry, Stevens Strategy developed and in February and March 2012 administered an on-line survey of the Wilson community and prospective students. The survey asked questions the consultant thought were relevant—with some input from individual members of the commission—of populations that the consultant, not the commission, identified. Coming when it did, the survey failed to ask many questions that could have assisted the commission’s work. For example, the programs subgroup developed several detailed proposals for new programs in the health sciences, but the survey asked only two very general questions health sciences. Most importantly, the survey did not allow for comments or feedback of any kind. Most disturbingly, the survey was administered entirely electronically.

Of the approximately 6,500 living Wilson alumnae spread across the globe, the college has working e-mail addresses for fewer than half. Choosing to administer the survey solely by e-mail thus excluded most alumnae. In addition, because the survey was administered before the commission began its work, those who received it had no idea what its purpose was.  Moreover, after the commission’s work got underway, Stevens Strategy never conducted a follow-up survey to test the reliability of its initial findings.

Because of the low number of alumnae reachable by e-mail and the fact that many older alumnae do not use the internet and may have never seen the college’s Web site, alumnae members of the commission repeatedly asked that a letter be mailed to all alumnae informing them of the commission’s work and specifically alerting them to the co-ed issue. The college rejected our request because such a mailing was “too expensive.” While basic information about the commission was posted on the college’s Web site, a brief article appeared in the summer issue of the alumnae magazine, and the college e-mailed invitations to alumnae to attend the open meeting on campus in September, none of these communications explained that this was not just run-of-the-mill strategic planning and none explicitly informed alumnae that the commission was examining the co-ed option.

Just as it did with the survey, before the commission started its work Stevens Strategy developed the financial and enrollment projections that formed the basis of our work. The first projections presented to the commission in May purported to show that Wilson needed 1,325 students to be financially sustainable. Months later, after the subgroups presented their initial ideas for program changes and administrative improvements and it appeared that these changes could increase enrollment to nearly 1,300 without admitting male students, “new” analysis of the tuition discount rate suddenly pushed the number up to 1,500. Before our work concluded, the number increased to 1,700, and even 2,000 was mentioned. In the face of these frankly frightening numbers, whatever thought the commission had given to the college’s mission and vision was pushed aside. Our work became defined by how many students we could bring to the college, not how we brought them there.

To do our work, the commission divided into subgroups. The subgroups looked at new markets, programs, quality of life, pricing and finance, and other college success stories. Despite the stated commitment to transformational change and the repeated admonition that “everything is on the table,” no subgroup examined the many issues that fall under the heading of college advancement, such as fundraising and alumnae relations. And despite its name, the pricing and finance subgroup examined only tuition price and tuition discounting, not critical issues such as options for restructuring the college’s debt, innovative ways to generate revenue and increase the endowment, best practices for engaging alumnae, programs for corporate partnerships, and so on. If everything was on the table, surely these and other financial issues should have been there.

In addition, while some understood that “everything is on the table” encompassed active consideration of making the college co-ed, no dedicated subgroup was created to examine the issue. Rather, it was subsumed sub silentio in the new-markets subgroup. Throughout the summer of 2012, therefore, as we did most of our work, anyone reading published accounts of the commission’s formation, structure, and schedule would have had no reason to know that the college was in the process of reconsidering its core mission.

Had consideration of the co-ed issue been undertaken by a separate and properly named subgroup, not only would the Wilson community have been more fully informed earlier in the process, but it would have been clear that the commission also needed a dedicated subgroup charged specifically with determining what Wilson could do to succeed as a women’s college. But because the admission of male students was treated as just another segment of the market, like transfer students, this critical omission was never identified or addressed.

The commission invited the Wilson family to participate in the process, but there was no vehicle, and no time, for incorporating into our work any of the many valuable and innovative suggestions submitted by alumnae, faculty, and students. I read every e-mail and letter sent to the commission but the commission never discussed the many wonderful ideas these communications contained. Questions and feedback from the three open meetings ended up being used to buttress existing proposals and make them immune from criticism, not to expand the ideas under consideration.

The commission was comprised of professors, administrators, staff, alumnae, trustees, and a single student (not “students,” as is frequently reported). Although we were a smart and hard-working group, we were not architects, engineers, developers, marketing experts, fundraisers, consultants, or financiers. Stevens Strategy was available to help, but we were essentially on our own to develop ideas, determine the cost of implementing those ideas at Wilson, and project the impact on enrollment if those ideas were adopted. As a result, we spent a lot of time Googling and talking with other colleges that would take our calls or respond to our e-mails.

Why is this fact significant? It means that while we very capably assembled a lot of information, we did not possess the expertise to evaluate it in the specific context of the challenges facing Wilson. Thus, for example, we can tell you what another college spent on its new student center, what it contained, and what enrollment was before and after the student center opened. But what does this information mean? We could only guess at the number of new students who might enroll at Wilson and the number who might not drop out if the college constructs a new student center. Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, we can tell you what happened when Goucher College or Hood or Wells went co-ed, but we cannot tell you what, if anything, their experiences have to teach Wilson.

The commission worked tirelessly to assemble as much information as possible, but we did not deliberate. Except for occasional conference calls for the subgroup “conveners,” the subgroups worked in isolation. Commission meetings were consumed by PowerPoint presentations. At no time did commission members simply sit in a room together and talk about what we had discovered in our subgroups, share what we had chosen to pursue and what we had set aside, share our concerns or ask each other questions. For example, given the challenges Wilson faces in enrollment, I wanted to ask the vice president for enrollment what would happen if her admissions staff were doubled, but I never had a chance to.

In mid-November, we breathlessly crossed the finish line and issued a final report that summarized many good strategic ideas for the college. Based on that report, less than two weeks later the president made her recommendations to the Board of Trustees. And here we must be absolutely clear. The Commission’s report was only a collection of ideas. Feasibility studies had not been done. Experts had not been retained. It was no surprise to me, therefore, that at its special meeting on December 1, the Board of Trustees determined that it needed more time before making any decisions. What did surprise me, however, is that the board never asked to meet with the commission. I expected that we would have an opportunity to meet with the trustees in executive session to answer all of their questions about our work. Although several trustees served on the commission, their individual experiences were not a substitute for a full commission and board meeting. But this meeting never happened.

Because the Board of Trustees did not meet with the commission and because of the complexity of many of the proposals, I was confident that when the board returned for its next special meeting on January 13, it would announce a plan for analyzing the various proposals, a timetable for decision making, and a further timeframe for implementation. In other words, I expected the board to announce a data-driven process for transforming Wilson College. On January 13th, the Board did in fact direct the president to initiate feasibility studies and financial modeling for each of the major proposals that emerged from the commission’s work. Except for one. Inexplicably, the Board approved the most major change to the mission of the college in her 144-year history without requiring a single feasibility study. The board approved this change without exhausting every option that would have permitted Wilson to remain a women’s college and retain the single most important distinction the college has, and that more and more young women are coming to appreciate.

From the new-markets subgroup report, it certainly looks like the best way to increase enrollment at Wilson is to admit male students. But the commission’s work must be understood for exactly what it is: only the first phase of the difficult and multi-phased task of transforming the college. Even this first phase—idea generation—was too rushed to be done properly. We did not effectively survey our stakeholders. We did not consider the suggestions and feedback we received from those stakeholders. We did not advertise properly. When we discovered holes in our process, we did nothing to patch them. We did not question the financial models provided by the consultant because most of us did not understand them. We did not talk to each other. Without meaning to, because there was so much that we did not know, we helped create a sense of crisis and panic within the community where it was all too easy to forget that Wilson has an endowment of over $60-million and the first principle payments on the bond are not due until 2018. I’m sure the Board of Trustees believed that it had to take prompt and decisive action to address the panic. The path it chose, however, was not the only one available and it is fraught with unknown dangers.

I was one of those commissioners who contributed literally hundreds of hours last year in good faith to a process I hoped would help strengthen my alma mater. I learned many things, but there are some crucial things that I and other members of the commission never knew. First and foremost among these is the fact that women’s colleges are, at this very moment, experiencing a resurgence of interest. Applications are increasing, enrollment is growing, and several women’s colleges actually have waiting lists, including Bryn Mawr, less than three hours away from Wilson. It is simply not true that an ever-diminishing number of young women will consider a women’s college. They are out there literally in the thousands. Wilson just has not found them.

Second, I had bought into the received wisdom that alumnae do not support the college and few will send their daughters to Wilson. Two alumnae groups, Pines & Maples and Wild Wilson Women, have knocked those assumptions flat forever. As news that the college was considering going co-ed spread, the Pines & Maples group set up a Web site that allowed people to pledge their support for Wilson as a women’s college. Currently, over 800 alumnae and friends have taken the pledge. In addition, last December the Pines & Maples group conceived of and rapidly launched a matching-fund campaign to raise money for the college and demonstrate to the Board of Trustees that alumnae do support Wilson and will continue to support her as a women’s college. In just 26 days, the group raised more than $81,000 in unrestricted cash donations. Most of the cash came from younger classes that rarely donate to the college. Again and again, alumnae reported that they had never given before because they had never been asked.

As all this was happening, the Wild Wilson Women Facebook page gained over 1,400 followers. In the thousands of comments alumnae have posted on that page, a common theme emerges. The college does not court the daughters of alumnae and it does not treat alumnae as stakeholders. Over and over again, alumnae reported contacting the college for admissions materials for their daughters and receiving nothing, taking their daughters to visit the campus and receiving no follow-up, or helping their daughters apply and seeing other colleges respond more quickly, more often, and more enthusiastically so that Wilson was soon forgotten. Over and over again, alumnae reported offering to attend college fairs, visit local high schools, meet with prospective students and their families, provide housing during internships, and more, and receiving no reply or an outright “No.” Can any college today afford to operate this way?

On January 4, a week before the Board of Trustees made their decision, I attended a special meeting of the Alumnae Association of Wilson College. About 40 alumnae of all ages made the trip to campus that day. The vice presidents for enrollment, student development, and college advancement generously met with us. By the end of our meeting, we had brainstormed a entire raft or two of ideas to support enrollment, retention, fundraising, and marketing—all the critical functions of the college. We established four task forces and staffed each one with enthusiastic volunteers willing to give their best to help Wilson thrive as a women’s college. The room was electric with energy and optimism about the possibility of a new day for Wilson and a new partnership between the college and her alumnae. On that day, I had a glimpse of what the commission should have been and what Wilson could be.

But it was not to be.

The Board of Trustees chose a future that does not include the Pines & Maples group or the Wild Wilson Women. There are alumnae who support the co-ed decision, but they are not raising money, organizing meetings, forming task forces, delivering holiday cards and gift cards to campus, administering an Amazon shopping link and donating commissions to the college, or issuing the first-ever Girl Scout Cookie challenge that in just 36 hours raised enough money to buy a box of cookies for every Wilson student and every Wilson child in the Women With Children program. Pines & Maples and the Wild Wilson Women did that, and it didn’t matter. Perhaps they have good reasons to be angry.

One last thing. At that special meeting of the Alumnae Association on January 4th, when asked what she most needed to increase enrollment at Wilson, number two on the vice president for lnrollment’s list was doubling the number of admissions counselors in her office.

Gretchen Van Ness



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