Reflections from the President

I write today to share more of my thinking with you after the decision at the recent Board meeting to take a vote later this spring on whether to become coeducational.  The reasons are many, though primarily twofold:  the difficulty of reaching a critical mass of students in contemporary times; and the philosophical question of whether educating women alone continues to be the best way to give women a quality education in the 21st century.

The issue of critical mass hinges around the number of students we believe essential to create an academic environment that is intellectually stimulating, varied, and provides enough financial support for the necessary elements of a quality education.  Some of those elements include a sufficient number of well qualified and competitively compensated full time faculty, and thriving co- curricular and extra-curricular programs.

We, along with many other women’s colleges, seem not to be able to reach or sustain those numbers, 800-1000 in our case, especially in current economic and educational circumstances.  Standard & Poor’s, an important evaluator of current economic trends, recently wrote:

  • “We expect the next few years to be particularly difficult for law schools, single-sex institutions and small regional religious institutions.”
  • “The impact of affordability concerns on financial operations is greater for small private institutions.”

Their warning certainly seems already to be true for women’s colleges, with a large majority showing declining enrollments over the recent years. Further, an increasing number of students are attending four-year public institutions, attracted by their lower tuitions, as well as community colleges which help them cost-average and thus lower the cost of four years of a baccalaureate degree even more.

It seems that only if times are very good can we do better with recruitment–especially when offering non career-oriented education in a single sex environment. (We at Chatham believe deeply in the importance of liberal arts in undergraduate education, but the popularity of liberal arts degrees are only slightly more attractive to the college bound high school students than are women’s colleges, which are said to appeal to 4% and 2% of high school students—girls—respectively.)

Our women’s college enrollment numbers have very much paralleled the economy: in the early nineties we were just above 500 students.  Our numbers climbed to nearly 750 in 2008, but began to decline with the economy after the “hit” of 2008 affected families as well as institutions.  We project that we will reach untenable numbers in very few years under current circumstances.   If we permit our enrollments to continue to decline in this fashion, we believe we will no longer be able to provide a quality education worthy of the talented and motivated students we recruit.

As we have mulled over the issue of numbers and affordability of our women’s college, we have inevitably asked ourselves whether there is another, or even a better, way of delivering on our mission of providing women quality education and appropriate leadership preparation in the 21st century and beyond. Even aside from this question of the affordability of this type of program for women’s education, is this the very best way or the only way to educate young women effectively for the future, for fulfilling lives of accomplishment and leadership?

There is undeniable value in our model of women studying alone, as has been reinforced over the last weeks I have been talking with faculty about ways we might be able to innovate academically and enhance our enrollments. But certain other facts continue to arise to question whether this is still the best possible, or the only, way to educate women now.  Unlike in 1869 when we were founded and few institutions educated women, women are now fully admitted to all institutions (except the three remaining men’s colleges), and are in the majority in most coeducational institutions. Women are in the majority in many educational arenas such as law and medicine.  Our own recent $650,000 National Science Foundation grant for women’s STEM education is an example of the federal government’s commitment to women even in these hard economic times.

The education of women was a social justice question in the 1860′s and now we must ask what this means today?  Is it only a commitment to women, or to social justice based on commitment to access, for all races and ethnicities, for the poor, and indeed, for students of both genders all of whom could benefit from the expertise we have throughout our institution in the implications of gender for education?

It is undeniable that there is still a significant gap between men and women, but isn’t it is more of a gap in leadership opportunities, and accomplishment than of access or the effectiveness of education?   Coeducational institutions such as Harvard in its Business School recognize that access alone does not guarantee equality for women, and runs special programs within its coeducational environment, rather than separates the women for education.  Isn’t it time for us to consider that as a possible model for ourselves?

Our message of needing to educate women alone to ensure their successful futures is not sought out by most young women.  Only 2% seek out this kind of education.  Do they not have a right to their opinion on how they will be educated?  Should we not adapt our message so that they can hear it by no longer requiring them to study with women only, but to women and men alongside one another in the classroom over the lesson of gender equality from which both can profit?

I have been president of Chatham for more than twenty years, and in that time we have worked mightily to achieve a critical mass of women within the current environment and program offerings we have which are based on the separation of women in undergraduate education. But we have never accomplished our goal of 800-1000 undergraduates. We have added graduate programs, which, while intrinsically valuable and excellent, also added to the attractiveness of the women’s college. We have marketed and marketed, and in the last five years spent twice as much on marketing and selling our women’s college than all our other programs combined.  Despite our best efforts, we have never accomplished our goal of 800-1000 undergraduates, and our other programs enroll almost three times the number of students in the women’s college.

Since October the long-term undergraduate faculty have engaged with the academic leadership and me in an attempt to re-imagine programmatic offerings, or to create parallel coeducational structures that would bring more students in but keep the women’s college as it is.  However, we found no solutions that could do that because of our core definition of the women’s college as something that rested on women being alone in the classroom, or at least in the majority of classrooms.  We could not find a means of achieving the desired critical mass of women for our college, in this environment, in this economy.

We weighed other ideas, including becoming an all-transfer college, to help students smooth out their educational costs by first going to community college, and we weighed abandoning the undergraduate mission altogether.

However, we believe that as an institution that had educated women successfully so long, we know some special things about gender and education that will serve not only women but also men in a coeducational undergraduate environment. Some of us have come to believe that that is the path we should pursue. Many also believe that the message of contemporary feminism has changed greatly from that of earlier generations and that the awareness of the meaning of gender cannot be pursued by studying the issues of women alone, or by educating women alone.

We thought about the role of our history and expertise in a world in which women have access to greater educational opportunities, but in which a persistent gender gap exists in salary, board access, and senior management/leadership roles.  We have seen great response within the Chatham community as well as in the larger Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania community to our outreach centers for Women and Politics, and Women and Entrepreneurship.

We have asked whether we could further develop our knowledge and practice of women in leadership–and all the other issues of gender equity– in a way that serves not just undergraduates, but all the students of the University as well as the larger public.  This would be akin to the ways that our focus on international outreach has been adopted by some of our graduate programs and the mission to sustainability has now permeated the whole campus, at both graduate and undergraduate levels.

We in the administrative leadership have been excited by this vision, and proposed to the Board of Trustees that we:

  • Make all undergraduate classrooms coeducational unless there is some compelling educational reason not to do so (as in the case of Keohane’s effort at Duke to occasionally educate women in certain quantitative or scientific courses separately)
  • That we create something perhaps called the “Chatham institute for Leadership and Gender Equality” where we coordinate our outreach centers, invite more visiting scholars and leaders, develop and offer an exceptional program and certificate in gender aware leadership available to both men and women, that is available to all our educational community, graduate and undergraduate as well as the external public.  This move we would do wholeheartedly and with added investment would keep us in line with our traditional mission to advance women, but in a way more aligned with contemporary theories of equality and needs of women–as well as of men.

Concurrently with this we would propose to reorganize the university into more traditional schools, organizing around academic disciplines rather than types of students (women, graduate, adult and online which we did to protect the women’s college but have found increasingly difficult as nursing, for example , is separated from other health sciences).This is still to be decided and would be done with faculty, but it would mean, for example, in addition to the Falk School of Sustainability which is already organized disciplinarily, the creation of a School of Health Sciences (where we already have 750 of our 2100), possibly a School Of Business and Communications, and a School of Arts and Sciences (where for example we already have an undergraduate  and graduate  Biology program as well as Creative Writing at both levels ) and a unit for continuing and online education that serves all schools.  By this means we will continue to serve the liberal arts, but also give our undergraduates more applied degrees in addition to the liberal arts and more access to our stellar graduate programs.  We could choose also to create an Honors program within Arts and Sciences to preserve the tutorial if it were desired.

With this vision and broad educational concept, the Board of Trustees has endorsed the idea of coeducation, pending input from our community.  Those of us who have been working on these ideas are excited by their potential not only to create critical mass in the undergraduate program but to serve the needs of women appropriately in 2014 and beyond, while making the whole institution stronger and better.  Chatham has made great steps forward in recent years, including many steps up in US News and World Report.  We, nonetheless, need to continue to change, adapt, and improve.

This morning as I finished “penning” this, I read Thomas Friedman’s column about Silicon Valley, described as refreshing for its innovation, and different from Washington where everything is “off the table” (at least until after the elections). In contrast, he says, to Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs awaken daily asking “What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/ reinvent my business to thrive from them?  ’They are fixated on creating abundance, not re-dividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination, no idea here is “off the table.’”

We must have this spirit as we seek to advance Chatham by achieving critical mass in our undergraduate programs, by continuing to serve women and helping address one of our most pressing national challenges–too few students, women and men, completing even Associates degrees.  I challenge you to “leave everything on the table”, respond to the ideas I have laid before you, and join in reinventing the way we achieve this vital set of goals. I look forward to engaging with you in coming weeks and beyond as we all work together to serve all our students and the larger community for whose service we exist.


Esther L. Barazzone, Ph.D.
February 18, 2014