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Wilson College's board voted Sunday -- despite protests from many students and alumnae -- to become a fully coeducational institution.

College leaders say that the change is essential for the institution to survive. Critics see an abandonment of a proud tradition of educating women. Men are already admitted to some programs at the college, but not the residential undergraduate program that for many alumnae defines the institution.

In announcing the shift, the college said that admitting men is but one part of a series of reforms that are designed to revitalize the institution. The college also plans to cut $5,000 off the current tuition of $28,745. And it plans a "loan buyback" program in which students who start and finish at Wilson and meet certain academic standards can have up to $10,000 in loans repaid by the college. Further, Wilson plans to add new majors and academic programs. But it is the admission of men that attracted the most attention and caused the controversy.

Barbara K. Mistick, president of Wilson, has argued that the college has no choice but to try truly different approaches, and says that the college is facing a "fiscal cliff" of its own. "As a tuition-driven institution, Wilson has lived with stagnant enrollment for 16 years in its College for Women. 'Wilson’s enrollment in the undergraduate college peaked in 1967 with 732 students and has not achieved half that number since 1976," Mistick wrote in an op-ed piece. "In three of the last four years, Wilson has had operational budget deficits and currently has $31 million in total debt. There is $10 million in deferred campus maintenance and, in 2018, Wilson will begin making principal payments on a multimillion-dollar bond."

Wilson will admit men as commuter students in the undergraduate college starting this fall, and they will be admitted as residential students in the fall of 2014. The college appeared to be getting ready to admit men even before the vote on Sunday. The college's home page features student profiles and the lead example was Casey Beidel, a male student who was able to enroll in the undergraduate college because he is the son of a college administrator. The profile talks about how he was comfortable at the college, and how much he valued the education he is receiving.

Wilson has been debating coeducation for months. The board had been expected to vote on the the idea last month, but opted to wait until Sunday to resolve the issue.

Far From Alone

In recent years, a number of women's colleges have made similar moves. The historically elite women's colleges have been doing well in admissions, but many others have not. While women's college students tend to praise the experience, most high school seniors say that they don't want to consider a women's institution. As a result women's colleges such as Peace College (now William Peace University), Randolph-Macon Woman's College (now Randolph College) and Georgian Court University have all moved to admit men. One of the four remaining men's colleges in the United States, Deep Springs College, is trying to admit women, but has been blocked at least temporarily by a court order. Alumni of single-sex institutions have a long history of opposing coeducation with protests and, in some case, litigation. But only in the case of Mills College was a coeducation plan abandoned as a result of protests. The institution remains a women's college.

Student critics of coeducation could not be reached Sunday night. But their views are evident in columns in the student newspaper at Wilson, The Billboard. One student noted that Wilson's mission is to educate women. Admitting men "means that everything that we have believed in, that we have valued, is a lie. It sends a message to the entire Wilson community, and to all women, that we cannot stand on our own; we are not the independent and confident women that we believe we are. Instead we are inferior and inadequate. Our mission has not failed; we are failing to stay true to our mission."

A website for alumnae opposed to coeducation says that there are alternatives to deal with the college's financial problems. Wilson's "future success lies in her uniqueness, part of which is represented in her status as a women's college," the website says.

One of the organizers of the alumnae opposed to coeducation, Nicole Noll, said via e-mail after the vote: "Of course we are deeply disappointed in and concerned about the decision; we have grave reservations about the accuracy of the data upon which the decision was based. Across the country, enrollment at women’s colleges similar to Wilson is increasing. During the past three months, Pines & Maples [the alumnae group] has energized committed alumnae who had hoped to enable future classes to graduate from Wilson College with the same advantages we enjoyed."

Mistick, in an interview after the vote, said she was confident in Wilson's future. She said that the tuition cut and loan program were essential to reach families worried about college costs, and she projected that over time, enrollment for the undergraduate college would double (to the 700s), with male enrollment growing to about 40 percent.

She said she realized that some alumnae were disappointed, but said she would reach out to those who opposed coeducation. "We need everyone in the Wilson circle," she said. "We hope their affection for the college" will outweigh their views on Sunday's vote, she said.

A Transgendered Student at Salem

At Salem College, meanwhile, some alumnae are concerned that the college's current consideration of whether to create a policy about transgendered students will lead to a decision to admit men. (Currently men are admitted to some programs for older students, but not to the residential undergraduate college.) The student was admitted to the college as a woman and will complete medical treatments soon to become a man. The student wants to remain a student, living on campus, and Salem officials have said that they have no policy on transgendered students. Salem alumnae take particular pride in the institution's status as a women's college. Founded in 1772 (at the time as a school), Salem is the oldest women's college in the United States.

The college recently surveyed students and faculty members for their thoughts on the issue, and those surveys reached alumnae, who have been circulating letters on the subject. One letter voices no opinion on the transgender student policy, but expresses fears that the college will stop being a women's institution. "I am not concerned with the issue of transgendered students, I am concerned that the door to Salem College becoming a coeducational institution is being opened," says the letter. "If the student in question, and any other female to male transgender student, is enrolled at Salem as a traditional student while living life as a male, what is to stop the board from allowing Salem to go coed at the next meeting? I am afraid that our college, the oldest women's educational institution in the country is at risk of the fate met by so many of our sister schools. Unfortunately, the feeling from other alumnae with whom I've spoken is that there is very little trust in the board or the administration to maintain Salem's women's college status. The sentiment seems to be that there are not enough people who truly understand and treasure our history, our legacy, and our passion as a women's college."

Another letter circulating among alumnae specifically asks that the transgender student not be permitted to stay. "I do feel that once the surgery is done and the male member is added (possibly) and the uterus removed (probably), and the high doses of male hormones are being taken, at that point she's no longer a female and should not be able to live on campus. Or attend undergraduate classes," says this letter. "As a parent of a college bound young woman, I could not, in good conscience, send my daughter to a school with vague boundaries regarding this issue, especially if she were seeking a same sex education. That's what coed schools are for."

Susan E. Pauly, president of Salem, sent alumnae a letter last week, stating that the review going on was about transgendered students. "I want to leave you with assurance that your board and administration are committed to our mission. We are grateful that the strength of our institution has enabled Salem to provide excellence in educating women for 241 years," she said.

The college also released a statement that said of the current review: "The policy is solely focused on transgender students and will be applied only to undergraduate, residential students. The board is not querying or gauging interest in transitioning to a co-ed campus."

Other women's colleges have considered the issue in recent years. At Smith College, a policy on gender identity states that while the college will admit only women, "[o]nce admitted, any student who completes the college's graduation requirements will be awarded a degree."

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