Chatham University trustees reject coed delay

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Chatham University’s board of trustees Tuesday rejected an alumni association request that a vote planned by June on a proposal to admit men into Chatham’s undergraduate women’s college be postponed until fall.

Gail Ruszczyk, the association’s president, had sought more time to study an idea that has angered some alumnae, saying requested data and other information that would help her organization better assess the proposal “have not been provided in a timely manner” by the administration.

But the board, responding to the association’s March 4 letter, said that “it will stick to the stated timetable,” Chatham spokesman Bill Campbell said.

He spoke Tuesday night after another campus forum drew nearly 85 alumnae who debated with the university’s leadership whether its 145-year-old college should go coed, and if so, whether four months from the time the idea was announced is adequate to discuss it and weigh alternatives.

The meeting in Eddy Theater followed one last week. It was scheduled for 90 minutes but stretched an hour beyond that, as school President Esther Barazzone and several trustees faced a fresh round of skeptical questions by alumnae from as far back as the 1970s.

The president was asked why — if Chatham can not compete for students as one of a relatively small number of women’s colleges — it would expect to thrive by entering a more crowded field of liberal arts colleges.

Ms. Barazzone responded that if trustees opt to go coed, the school “will not be purely a liberal arts college” because Chatham will need to do more than that to compete.

“We will have strong liberal arts majors. We will have a strong liberal arts core. [But] we will have many, many more applied majors — undergraduate [majors] that lead into graduate programs because students will absolutely not pay the high price of education if they do not believe they will have a job” upon graduating.

She said if it were up to her, Chatham would not have fraternities or sororities, even if some schools that have gone coed have added them. “I think they’re bad ideas generally,” she said.

Though men’s athletic teams would be in the campus’s future, Ms. Barazzone said she would not want to have a program that awards athletic scholarships.

The meeting, which was closed to outsiders including the media, was streamed live to alumni around the country.

Chatham officials have said they will continue their focus on women but that a single-sex college is no longer a viable model given financial and enrollment concerns, including a nearly 50 percent decline since 2008 in first-time freshmen studying full time. Chatham already admits men into certain programs, including its growing graduate studies.

Ms. Barazzone referenced a letter she posted to Chatham’s web site earlier in the day that spoke about an important opportunity to change so as to ensure the institution remains as relevant as it was at its 1869 founding.

“There is a very small market for women’s colleges, and we are not in the most opportune position to draw that market to us,” the letter read in part. “We are neither elite/well known nor heavily endowed; nor are we in an urban area with a whole array of applied programs that will draw a large number of students to us.”

But some speakers questioned the logic of deciding to go coed without first having a specific plan or structure in place. One speaker vowed she would not support a coed undergraduate college. Another suggested a tuition price cut to generate more interest.

Still another asked the president and board to give alumnae more time to help save the college’s single-sex tradition.

“I’m begging you,” said the woman. “Give us an additional year to find a different solution. You’re asking us for ideas, but you’re not giving us a chance to think.”

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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