Jane Burger, a longtime Chatham University trustee, called her board's action "courageous."
President Esther Barazzone said Chatham now is better positioned since its undergraduate programs will be open to a wider market at a time when colleges -- in particular single-sex institutions -- are struggling.
"We've made a strategic and historic decision," she told a campus news conference, flanked by five of the school's 29 trustees who expressed their support for what they called a wrenching decision.
Chatham University president defends decision
The board of Chatham University voted to allow men in to the university's undergraduate program. (Video by Doug Oster; 5/1/2014)
Chatham students stage protest
Chatham students protest the university's proposal to allow men into the undergraduate program. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/30/2014)
The vote Thursday by Chatham's board to end a 145-year tradition by admitting men into the undergraduate women's college drew drastically different reviews outside Eddy Theatre, where board members deliberated behind closed doors for more than two hours, then left quietly by a side exit blocked by campus security.
About 20 alumnae protesters on Chatham's main quad carried signs, chanted and decorated a cremation box with a purple-and-white Chatham banner from the days when Chatham was a college that promoted the theme of "world ready women." Standing inside a roped-in "free speech" zone, some looked wistfully at yearbooks from an institution headed for change and -- in their eyes -- about to lose its niche.
"Chatham is no longer special in this saturated market of colleges and universities," said Emily Newport Woodward, 45, of Carnegie, a member of the Class of 1990. "I find it extremely ironic that Dr. Barazzone was brought here to save Chatham in 1990, and now her legacy will be to have basically undone what she saved."
Others nearby and on social media served up even harsher language.
"The president that I had back then," said Amanda Nedley, 37, of Upper S. Clair, Class of 1990, "would throw this Esther Barazzone off the Rachel Carson Bridge. They're two different people."
But as they have since announcing the possible coed conversion in February, Chatham leaders called it vital to reversing enrollment and financial losses at the undergraduate level that are a drag on growing coed graduate programs. They said those outspoken against the idea are passionate but do not reflect the view of most Chatham alums and that higher education and the role of women in it have changed.
The college, founded in 1869, will see its first male undergraduates recruited for fall 2015.
The board's action Thursday includes a reorganization of Chatham University by academic units and the creation of a new Women's Institute. The Women's Institute this year will start with $8.5 million, made up of various endowments, current funds and $2 million in newly raised commitments.
In a news release, Ms. Barazzone said, "Our thinking has been inspired by a more contemporary interpretation of Chatham's mission in serving society's educational needs while also honoring our commitment to women with the establishment of our Chatham University Women's Institute to address critical challenges for women in the areas of business, politics, health and leadership development."
The university declined to release a breakdown of the coed vote. Ms. Barazzone said it "was not unanimous but near unanimous."
Chatham was founded under the name Pennsylvania Female College not long after the Civil War.
It has enrolled male graduate students for decades but kept its undergraduate college single sex, even as Chatham evolved into a university and as undergraduate females came to represent a shrinking part of the overall institution.
The college's enrollment, which peaked at about 750 in 2008, is now closer to 500, a small fraction of the university's nearly 2,200 students, officials said. The number of first-time full-time freshmen is half what it was in 2008 and is continuing to decline, of particular worry for a tuition-dependent campus already using its growing graduate programs to offset undergraduate losses.
In February, when Chatham announced that its board was pondering a move to coed, Ms. Barazzone cited "the difficulty of reaching a critical mass of students in contemporary times and the philosophical question of whether educating women alone continues to be the best way to give women a quality education in the 21st century."
Women are now in the majority on the nation's college campuses. And only 2 to 4 percent of college-bound high school females say they want to attend a women's college, a preference evident in a decline in the ranks of women's colleges across the U.S. from 200 in the 1960s to fewer than 50, Ms. Barazzone has said.
Compounding matters were the recession of 2008 and population losses that have hit single-sex colleges especially hard.
Trustee Louise Brown said told reporters Thursday her resistance to going coed was right in 1990 and so was Thursday's vote.
Trustees chair Jennifer Potter said, "The need for single-sex education is not what it was in our day."
On campus, students said Thursday that views were sharply divided, and some expressed support for the change. Eric Rodriguez of Shadyside, who is working on a master's degree in biology, said he sees the economic necessity.
"The university is going to go away or they have to let men in," he said.
A group of alumnae dubbed the Save Chatham movement said the school rushed to decide without adequately exploring options to boost undergraduate recruiting. Members said they stood ready raise additional funds to preserve a single-sex college, but some now vow to shift their financial support to other women's colleges.
Ms. Barazzone said without elaborating that overall fundraising is "up slightly" since February's announcement. Paid deposits from freshmen for the fall are ahead of last year, but college applications continue to decline.
"It's not sustainable," said Amy Becher, vice president for enrollment management.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.