Stop the rush to go coed at Chatham

It is time for creative, open-minded leadership at the university

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On Thursday Chatham University trustees will vote either to turn Chatham College for Women into a coeducational undergraduate college or to defer this vote for a year while other options are considered to improve Chatham College’s recruitment of undergraduate students.

Alumnae have reached out to each other via social media in an effort to understand the problems Chatham faces while seeking to delay this vote. We’ve offered our support to find other ways to save our beloved women’s college. However, it’s been clear since the first town hall meeting on this subject in March that the leadership at Chatham wants only to push through this vote as fast as possible and that our ideas are not welcome.

Alumnae and others who are worried about the course Chatham is taking have joined on social media to share information and support each other. Six smart, organized alumnae have led this effort, resulting in a 48-page document explaining why the vote should be deferred.

In a recently published response, Chatham president Esther Barazzone wrote, “The material you sent the board represents the views of a small but passionate group of Chatham College for Women alumnae who have been among the most vocal in opposition to the board’s resolution calling for a proposal on undergraduate coeducation.”

Repeatedly, Ms. Barazzone has asserted that only a few alumnae strongly oppose coeducation in the undergraduate program (the graduate program already is coeducational). We and at least 200 other signers of an iPetition, mostly alumnae, as well as the more than 2,000 people who have “liked” the Save Chatham Facebook page, wish to dispel that belief.

Since the Feb. 18 announcement of the intention to consider coeducation for Chatham College for Women, President Barazzone has shown no interest in finding a way not to go coeducational. Either she has no vision for Chatham College for Women anymore or she never really did. She has defined the problem and proposed solution as a simple matter: Enrollment is down; only coeducation will save the school. She has been hostile and condescending to those who want to find an alternative solution.

After 22 years as president, Ms. Barazzone has established a board of trustees that appears not to challenge her thinking or decisions. It is the trustees’ job to oversee her performance — and especially to carefully examine large proposals that would change the character of the university — yet they seem to affirm her decisions without deep exploration.

High turnover in directors, managers and faculty suggests poor leadership at Chatham. President Barrazone does not share power and does not accept ideas different from her own and therefore has trouble holding onto good employees. For those employed at Chatham, she has created a culture of silence. She blames the all-women’s structure for recruitment problems instead of the high turnover rate of people implementing critical programs.

Ms. Barazzone has neglected Chatham College for Women while investing time and energy and money in graduate programs and Eden Hall Farm. She does not truly appreciate the special experience of a women’s-only undergraduate education. If she did, she would have been talking receptively with all alumnae about the university’s “problems” long ago so that their expertise could be engaged.

The plan to go coeducational seems to have been many months, probably years, in the making. The goal appears to be to create vertical programs that join undergraduate to graduate programs and to have all of these become coeducational. Chatham College for Women does not fit this design so it has to go — even though, when Chatham went from being a college to a university, alumnae were told repeatedly that this would not change the status of Chatham College for Women.

Chatham does not belong to Ms. Barazzone and her small executive team. It belongs to all of us. It is not OK for a small group of people to change forever the soul of Chatham College for Women and to do so in such a short period of time. Ending 145 years of tradition and history in a matter of months is crazy. The trustees must know this.

They should defer the vote for at least one year, but preferably three. They should spend this time reorganizing the board and putting together an administration with leaders who believe in the value of a women’s-only college, and let them see what they can do.

It is time for Ms. Barazzone to retire. She no longer has the passion to lead Chatham College for Women. Even the president of the United States needs to move on after eight years.

Chatham College for Women needs a board that will not give up on her. Trustees, please vote “no” on coeducation until people who love Chatham College for Women can work for her success.

This comes from a not-so-small but passionate group of alumnae.

Nancy Chubb, class of 1973, is a psychologist practicing in Downtown and Shadyside; Rachel Lunsford, class of 2007, is a product manager living in Des Moines, Iowa; and Kelly McKown, class of 2002, is a project manager living in Lexington, Ky.

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