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Former Carnegie Libraries director heads up 'rescue' of Wilson College in Chambersburg

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Barbara Mistick knew she was taking on a challenge when she became president of Wilson College in 2011.

Enrollment at the tiny women's college in Chambersburg that alumnae and students sued to keep from closing in 1979 had dwindled to fewer than 700 students. The college library was closed for repairs, and the school faced the challenge of $1 million a year payments on a science building due in 2019.

Fresh from six years as director of the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, which she shepherded through a major transition, Mistick, 58, relished the challenge to “be an agent of change” at Wilson.

“When you see these things before you take the job, they are numbers on a piece of paper; when you're sitting in the seat, everything is in Technicolor,” Mistick said.

Though many of Pennsylvania colleges began planning for the state's shrinking demographics years ago and began aggressive campaigns to meet enrollment goals, Wilson, a 143-year-old school with loyal alumnae, seemed locked in time.

That would change quickly under Mistick, who started a study commission — too quickly, some alumnae say.

In January 2013, Wilson trustees reduced tuition by $5,000 a year to $23,745 and adopted a program to buy back up to $10,000 in federal loans for students who graduated in four years with grade point averages of 3.5 or higher. They agreed to admit men in the residential college beginning in 2014.

“We have a rich history here, and we want to preserve that. But we really want to double our enrollment by 2020. That's our goal for our both graduate and undergraduate programs,” Mistick said.

She said Wilson is boosting recruitment and focusing on adult degree programs as well as degree and certificate completion. The school added a division of health sciences and will emphasize financial literacy to ensure students don't take on too much debt on the way to graduation.

Brian Speer, Wilson's vice president of marketing and communications, said the college is on track to enroll 110-115 freshman this fall, up from 95 last fall.

But the decision to take the school co-ed remains under fire.

Gretchen Van Ness, a Boston lawyer and 1980 Wilson graduate who represented her junior class in the 1979 lawsuit, said the change was rammed through without adequate review.

Van Ness, who was on the board of trustees from 2001-10, said some Wilson alumnae are asking the school to reconsider that decision. Some again are considering legal action.

“We knew things had to change, but we have a rich 143-year history, and this comes at a time when women's colleges are flourishing,” Van Ness said.

Recent Wilson graduate Leslie Hoover, 22, of State College, sympathizes with those sentiments.

“It would have been nice to stay a women's college, but part of the mission of the college is to be there for the future. And if offering what it has to undergraduate males will allow it to flourish, then that's what needed to be done,” Hoover said.

Seton Hill University President JoAnn Boyle ushered the Greensburg school through a transition that enabled it to grow from a struggling women's college 25 years ago to a flourishing co-ed university with an osteopathic medical school and an orthodontics school. Boyle has known Mistick, who once headed Seton Hill's Center for Women in Business, for decades.

“I don't know what kind of additive to her water she had, but she must have had something to take this one,” Boyle said. “When you just look at the numbers in an objective way, it looks extremely challenging. ... I think it's a great plan. I just hope they have time to see it lead to a positive conclusion.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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