As Chatham University’s board of trustees prepares to vote Thursday on whether to allow its all-female undergraduate college to go coed, the dean of the Chatham College for Women has resigned, and leaders have reiterated their view that the switch is necessary for the institution’s future viability.
The resignation of Karol Dean, who is the top-ranking official in the College for Women, was announced Tuesday and is effective May 23. If the board votes to go coed, an academic reorganization will take place and the women’s college will be eliminated.
Ms. Dean will become dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Mercy College in New York, announced in an email sent Tuesday to the campus community by Wenying Xu, vice president for academic affairs.
In an email, Ms. Dean, who joined Chatham in January 2012, praised the women’s college’s faculty, students and staff and said she is leaving to “pursue a great opportunity” at Mercy College.
On the coed question, she wrote, “Because of the decline in the number of high school graduates in the Western Pennsylvania region, I join the faculty in encouraging the board of trustees to examine all options, including the option of expanding the primary undergraduate program to become a mixed sex program, in the interest of maintaining a vibrant intellectual community.”
In a meeting Monday with editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chatham president Esther Barazzone suggested that the switch to coed would, among other things, enable the university to reorganize itself rationally, based on disciplines and student demand, rather than simply walling off the all-female undergraduate college from the rest of the 2,200-student university
Chatham would like to give undergraduates as soon as they enroll the option of securing a spot in the university’s high-demand graduate programs.
Ms. Barazzone was joined by trustees Jane Burger and Louise Brown, who agreed that the circumstances now are different than they were when Chatham previously weighed going coed nearly a quarter-century ago.
They cited the severe economic downturn in 2008, population losses in Pennsylvania and declining interest among college-bound high school girls in pursuing study at a single-sex college.
“I think reality has set in for most of our alums, not all of them, but most of them,” said Ms Brown, a member of the Class of 1967.
That said, she alluded to the difficulty of the decision for them and for the board that has been weighing the idea for months. If the school goes coed, males would first be admitted in the fall of 2015.
“Are they all thrilled? I’m not even in that category,” she said.
The trustees, who will meet at 1 p.m. Thursday on the Shadyside campus, have given no sign they might adhere to calls by a group of alumnae and students which wants the vote to be delayed a year. Those opponents say the school should more thoroughly weigh alternatives.
Officials have allotted space on campus for an expected protest as the board meets. Last week, a small group of students and alumnae carrying signs that included “Better Dead Than Coed!” were asked to leave campus, something Ms. Barazzone said in hindsight the university might have handled differently.
In an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s Post-Gazette, three Chatham alumnae — Nancy Chubb (1973), Rachel Lunsford (2007) and Kelly McKown (2002) — dispute assertions that only a small group of alumnae is opposed. They said that notion is dispelled by the more than 2,000 likes on the Save Chatham Facebook page and the more than 200 people who have signed an iPetition against going coed.
Since announcing in February that the board would weigh going coed, the authors wrote, “President Barazzone has shown no interest in finding a way not to go coeducational.”
Chatham leaders counter that efforts were made, but even so, the ranks of first-time, full-time freshmen is half what it was five years ago and is continuing to fall even as coed graduate programs thrive.
Undergraduate enrollment, which grew to 750 in 2008, is now closer to the 500 figure in 1990, when going coed was last weighed.
Ms. Burger said other women’s colleges waited too late before making the switch, firing their presidents amid financial hardship and bringing in someone new to make the change. She said that in the case of Chatham, Ms. Barazzone has worked aggressively for two decades to preserve the single-sex college.
“When Esther says we need to do this, it’s very different than the new guy coming in to say we need to do this,” Ms. Burger said.
Eleanor Chute contributed. Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG. First Published April 29, 2014 3:40 PM