Commonwealth Court dismisses petition to keep Wilson College gender-separated

By Nicholas Malfitano | Feb 17, 2016

Wilson College  

HARRISBURG – Due to lack of standing, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has denied a petition from four female alumnae of Wilson College who appealed a state Department of Education order allowing the school to become fully coeducational.

Judge James Gardner Colins of the Commonwealth Court reviewed the petition brought by Wilson alumnae Paula S. Tishok (’71), Melissa Behm (’76), Kendal L. Hopkins and Gretchen Van Ness (’80), ultimately concluding their position could not be supported.

“We conclude that none of the petitioners has standing. Petitioners are all alumnae of Wilson who graduated over 30 years before the events at issue here,” Colins said. “They are not themselves directly affected by whether Wilson is coeducational, as they no longer are enrolled in Wilson or residing or taking classes on its campus, nor do they teach or work at Wilson.”

Wilson College is a private liberal arts college in Franklin County, and according to Colins, Pennsylvania law requires that private colleges and universities submit amendments to their articles of incorporation to the Department of Education, for its review and approval to permit the Department to ensure that the changes comply with state requirements for institutions of higher education.

In the articles’ 1993 iteration, Paragraph 3A originally read: “In furtherance of its purpose set forth in the original charter, to operate a College for Women, which offers residential opportunity, and, in addition, to operate a coeducational College of Continuing Education.”

“Male and female students in Wilson’s continuing education program attended classes with Wilson’s regular undergraduates and received Wilson degrees; until 2013, however, Wilson limited its undergraduate residential program to women,” Colins said.

In 2013, Wilson College sought to amend its articles of incorporation by changing Paragraph 3A to the following: “To promote the education of both women and men in undergraduate and graduate degree and non-degree programs.”

The Department of Education published notice of Wilson’s application for approval of the amendments to its articles of Incorporation on July 13, 2013, and said any requests for a public hearing on the application, petitions to intervene and protests must be filed within 30 days. Van Ness timely filed such an intervention petition.

After a public hearing on June 16, 2014, the Department issued a decision on Jan. 6, 2015 approving Wilson’s 2013 amendments to its articles of incorporation, concluding that the amendment making Wilson fully coeducational and the other amendments all conformed to the Department’s regulations and satisfied the standards and qualifications for institutions of higher education.

The petitioners filed the instant petition for review appealing that order, and Colins said a petitioner in this scenario must prove they have “a direct interest in the matter” and that they are “aggrieved by the agency decision.”

Colins felt the four petitioners did not meet this standard.

“As Petitioner Hopkins stated at the public hearing, petitioners ‘have absolutely nothing to gain personally” from their efforts to keep Wilson a single-sex college,” Colins said.

“An individual’s status as a graduate of an educational institution does not give her standing to challenge changes in the educational institution’s practices, structure or governance in court,” Colins added. “While petitioners’ attachment to Wilson is real, the ties and devotion that alumnae feel for their alma mater are not the type of actual, direct interest necessary to confer standing.”

Colins clarified the petitioners’ status as former members of the Board of Trustees and Van Ness, Behm and Tishok’s positions as “Everitt-Pomeroy Trustees” (a non-voting, honorary position) do not give them any power to vote on matters before Wilson College’s board of trustees, and do not confer the required standing on them to challenge the institution’s actions.

“We conclude that petitioners lack standing to appeal the Department’s approval of Wilson’s amendment of its articles of incorporation. Accordingly, this petition for review must be dismissed,” Colins said.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania case 136 C.D. 2015

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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