Leap to survival: Chatham should go coed to ensure its future

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Chatham University has been a women’s college since its founding in 1869, but the debate about whether to go coed — which may be settled at a trustees meeting Thursday — isn’t the leap that might be imagined.

In fact, men already attend Chatham — it’s just that they participate only in the graduate programs. Although they are far from being in the majority — about 15 percent, 331 out of a total school enrollment of 2,170 (including 1,488 full-time students) — their presence is proof that a school can still hew to its historic mission as a nurturing place for women while adapting to changing times.

Indeed, as Chatham president Esther Barazzone suggests, the university is already a coed university but with a women’s undergraduate college of 568 students at the center of it. The proposal to make that component coed is what the controversy is all about.

But even with undergraduate studies, Chatham has already started to move away from tradition. The first class this fall at the Falk School of Sustainability at its new Eden Hall campus in Richland will be open to both male and female undergraduates.

Still, it is understandable that tradition should have a strong hold, especially as Chatham’s identity is tightly woven into the image and idea of being a women’s institution. So why change? As the supporters of coed undergraduate education tell it, the answer is because the times demand it. Many say this reluctantly. As trustee and alumna Louise Brown says: “Are we thrilled? I don’t think I am in that category. But we have to do something.”

Ironically, the issue was stated most succinctly by a young protester to the plan who held up a sign last week that read: “Better Dead Than Coed!” While this we hope was more catchy pun than personal threat, death for the institution is really what the university’s administration is concerned about long-term.

The most worrisome number comes from a study that only 2 percent of female students nationwide would consider going to an all-women’s college. With undergraduate enrollment already down and national trends clear, that does not bode well for Chatham’s long-term future. By building up the undergraduate classes by accepting men and women, which paradoxically is likely to mean more women attending, Chatham can guarantee the continuation of its other unique programs.

Women were once largely excluded from a college education and schools such as Chatham started as an alternative. But the result of the battle for equality with men was in large part won by women — and Thursday’s decision is really about adjusting to the new reality.

It is Chatham’s decision alone and there is no point in delaying it further. Going coed has been discussed on and off for 30 years, the last time seriously in 1990, and Pittsburgh’s interest is that this great institution survive. If its trustees in 2014 decide that going coed is the way to ensure its future, they should take that now-not-very-big leap.

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