Chatham University president Esther Barazzone sought to convince more than 100 skeptical alumnae and others Wednesday night that allowing the undergraduate women's college to go coed is vital to repairing the university's increasingly strained finances.
The response from her audience was resounding: Don't do it.
Ms. Barazzone told those inside Eddy Theatre on the Shadyside campus and others watching a live stream around the nation that income from growing graduate programs that could help fund new initiatives instead increasingly must be used to offset losses in the undergraduate women's college.
The resulting drain on the university's $50 million budget that stood at $2 million in 2008 has grown to $5 million this year and could reach $10 million by 2018.
Ms. Barazzone said the university's finances so far are in the black, but warned that may be about to change.
"Right now, we are just about to tip into the red," she said.
The president asked the graduates, staff and some students if it was right to allow that to happen, then answered her own question.
"I would -- and am -- arguing that it is not," she said.
Ms. Barazzone reiterated remarks she made when the coed idea was first announced last month that the climate for single-sex residential colleges has gotten precipitously worse in a bad economy. But she faced largely skeptical, and at times contentious, questions from the crowd, some of whom said Chatham was turning its back on 145 years of history.
Sarah Ford, 27, a 2008 graduate from Coraopolis, told Ms. Barazzone and half a dozen university trustees seated on stage that admitting men to shore up the school's finances would be the moral equivalent "of selling your body."
In a comment that drew an ovation, she said the conversion might solve the immediate financial need but "how will we look at ourselves in the mirror afterwards."
Ms. Ford said she, like some of her fellow alumnae, had offered to help recruit more students, but received no response.
"That is infuriating to me," she said. "You have an army of smart, capable and enthusiastic people."
The university initially closed the session to news media, but just before its 6 p.m. start reversed course and allowed reporters and photographers inside the theater. The session, scheduled for 90 minutes, instead ran past 8 p.m.
Chatham has said the number of first-time freshmen studying on its campus full time has shrunk nearly 50 percent since 2008, from 176 to 92 this year and is expected to decline again next fall to 85 students. Officials said a college that once had more than 700 students could have fewer than 320 within five years.
That is occurring, said Ms. Barazzone, even though $9 million of the university's $50 million operating budget goes into financial aid. She said only $800,000 of that is from gifts, meaning $8.2 million in aid is coming from university operations.
She said Chatham projects that the average tuition discount rate will reach 52 percent this fall, meaning half of what the school charges for tuition is in effect given back to students as aid. Even so, not enough seats are filled.
"Our cost model has become virtually impossible for more and more people," she said.
The forum's dialogue was civil, though there were flashes of tension, too.
Rosemary Davies, 19, a sophomore from Berkeley, Calif., rose and told Ms. Barazzone and the trustees that she now feels she was misled last year when as a work-study student soliciting donations for Chatham she was told to say the college would always be single-sex.
"I was told to say yes, and I believed it in my heart," she said.
When Ms. Davies asked Ms. Barazzone and the trustees for a year of honesty first before allowing the decision to be made, Ms. Barazzone could be heard sternly uttering "ooooooh."
The president later told the audience, "No attacks on the message bearer will be paid attention to."
Another speaker, Stephanie Swift-Antill, 34, of Penn Hills said in her view the prospect of going coed is largely the result of misplaced spending priorities on various fronts over the years, including large sums of money pumped into the new Eden Hall campus.
She told Ms. Barazzone that if things are as bad financially as they are being portrayed, then perhaps the president should forgo at least some of her compensation, which in December the Chronicle of Higher Education put at $1.8 million for 2011.
The Chronicle figure included $283,839 in base pay and other reportable compensation such as retirement packages that the Chronicle said collectively made her the eighth-highest-paid chief executive of a private nonprofit college or university in the United States.
Ms. Barazzone reminded the crowd that a coed Chatham not only would mean more men, but more of the share of women who at present exclude the university since they do not want a single-sex campus.
Other questions ranged from the addition of men's sports to the safety implications for current students of adding men to the enrollment. And there were impassioned reminders of the uniqueness of the education and campus experience at a women's institution.
School trustee Louise Brown, class of 1967, suggested the move while difficult may be for the best, but also acknowledged bad feelings among the audience.
"I know you're upset," she said. "I'm upset. We're all upset."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published March 5, 2014 7:51 PM