Chatham’s choice: Realities of modern times force a hard decision

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The decision by Chatham University to study whether its undergraduate college should go coed raises an interesting question: How can an academic institution keep faith with its past while trying to secure its future?

Chatham’s undergraduate college has been women-only since its founding in 1869. Generations of women have walked its halls and grown confident and secure in its setting. At first they may have come because the best schools in the nation were traditionally reserved for men, but this necessity evolved into an accepted virtue.

That poses a second question: Does a women-only school still have worth in an age when gender equality is a widely shared value and when many career barriers for women have fallen away?

These questions must be answered by the university itself — its students, alumni, administrators and staff. Many single-sex schools decided to go coed years ago and indeed that discussion was held at Chatham in 1990 only for tradition to be preserved.

Now, not only has the social tide run harder for gender equality but another reality has set in: Young women are not choosing to attend Chatham in the numbers they once did. The undergraduate college has 588 women, down from a peak of 675 in 2008. That may be explained by several factors, including a bias against liberal arts education by men and women both.

Yet while acknowledging these factors, Chatham President Esther Barazzone points out that only 2 percent of high school girls these days say they want to attend a woman’s college. As she explains it, the issue for Chatham isn’t about economics; it’s about maintaining “a critical mass” for a strong university.

Although the trustees agreed last Friday to study going coed, which could lead to a vote by June, Ms. Barazzone says the potential move is not a retreat from the school’s women-centered mission. If that seems far-fetched, the university already walks a fine line. Men are not exotic creatures among its 2,200 students overall; they attend graduate classes.

Reaction has been mixed with a good deal of it on social media being negative. One graduate tweeted: “So sad.” So it is. So it always is when tradition collides with the challenges of a new time.

The greater community has an interest in this debate. The Pittsburgh region must hope that, whatever decision is reached, Chatham University, with its beautiful Shadyside campus and bucolic Eden Park center in Richland, advances its prospects for surviving well into the future, finding some balance that honors the women who went before.

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