Chatham University, whose undergraduate college has been female-only since the school's founding in 1869, is considering admitting men for the first time in that college's history, officials confirmed Tuesday evening.
University president Esther Barazzone cited economic pressures and enrollment realities in telling a campuswide meeting of students and employees why Chatham has become the latest women's institution in Pennsylvania and beyond to consider going coed.
The university's trustees, meeting Friday behind closed doors, unanimously approved a resolution allowing for a period of study that could lead to a board vote by June, officials said. If the trustees approve the idea, the first men in Chatham's undergraduate programs could be enrolled by fall 2015.
Chatham has nearly 2,200 students. For years it has enrolled men in certain programs, including graduate studies, though the undergraduate college has remained single-sex. The undergraduate college currently has 588 women, down from a peak of 675 in 2008, school spokesman Bill Campbell said.
Campus officials say the downward trend is expected to continue and that Chatham has been left in recent years with fewer options to offset those losses.
Speaking inside Campbell Memorial Chapel on the Shadyside campus, Ms. Barazzone took questions and insisted the potential move was not a retreat from the school's woman-centered mission. Instead, she said, it represented an opportunity to strengthen the university as a whole and avoid faculty layoffs.
"If this was just about economics, Chatham would have gone coed in 1990," she said, insisting that it waged an "all-out effort" to avoid doing so.
Her remark alluded to a serious flirtation with going coed back in 1990, two years before her arrival.
"You can call it economics," she told the crowd seated in pews. "I call it realism."
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette afterward, Ms. Barazzone said the school's financial position is not the driving issue, noting Chatham's endowment -- while it shrank about 30 percent from $60 million after 2008 and the recession -- since has rebounded to $75 million.
Rather, the problem is maintaining "critical mass in an environment in which only 2 percent of college-bound high school girls say they want to go to a women's college," Ms. Barazzone said.
That is on top of waning interest by men and women in liberal arts degrees, she added, and a decline generally in the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates.
"I feel like we're doing the responsible thing for the institution and for the women of the undergraduate college as well as other people invested in the institution," she said.
Other Pennsylvania campuses have gone coed, among them Wilson College in Chambersburg last year and Seton Hill University in Greensburg years earlier.
The enormity of the news at Chatham was evident on the faces of some who left the meeting just before sunset. A number of undergraduates, a few of their faces flush, declined comment.
"While we may not all agree with this decision, we were given a voice and an opportunity to continue the conversation because it is controversial," said Jenny Schollaert, 20, a junior from Plum majoring in women's studies and English.
"I still have to process my feelings," she added. "I have had instances where I have been in classes with men at this institution -- graduate classes -- and they have yielded as stimulating discussions as my undergraduate classes with women, so I appreciate both sides of the coin."
There will be student forums upcoming, said Mareija Bibbs, a Chatham senior and executive president of the Chatham College for Women Student Government.
Asked how she expects the decision will play among those who chose Chatham because it offers a women-only undergraduate program, she replied: "I can understand them feeling upset about the situation, but I encourage them to voice that."
Jennifer Odle, 20, a freshman elementary education major from White Oak, acknowledged her opinion might not be popular on campus.
"Such wonderful things happen in the classrooms everyday here, it would be a disservice to not let men in on it," she said. "The world would benefit so much if men could come and sit and learn with us. We're just being selfish by not letting them in quite frankly."
But the tone was far different on social media by some who were voicing their views even before Ms. Barazzone took part in a conference call briefing alumni representatives from around the country.
"So sad," one graduate tweeted.
Mr. Campbell said a series of town hall discussions and dialogues involving alumni are planned.Ms. Barazzone said Chatham for years has responded to challenges by diversifying, such as adding graduate programs and developing the Eden Hall campus in Richland, which will focus on sustainability and other programs. She said the vigor with which those efforts were waged lend credibility to what is happening now. "Our alumni love Chatham and will support Chatham after a period of being sad about this necessary change," she said.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published February 18, 2014 5:36 PM