Letter from the President

Dear Chatham College for Women Alumnae:

I am writing in a continuing effort to generate thoughtful dialogue among all interested parties.  Many seem to forget that Chatham University as a whole is doing fine, threatened only if we continue an unaltered pattern of unlimited support during continuation of the downward enrollment spiral of Chatham College for Women (CCW).  My hope is that we can continue to talk about what is possible for Chatham University in a spirit of constructive sharing, for we all are committed to Chatham and its continuing to serve the cause of supporting women’s education, leadership and empowerment.

One communication issue that perhaps should be discussed upfront concerns what amount and types of data alumnae will receive.  There are things that lie within the purview of the Board’s responsibility —such as oversight of the operations of the institution, be they admissions, marketing, or academic management —that the Board is under no legal or other obligation to share.  Transparency has been served by the large amount of data that has been shared on the web concerning the trends in the institution’s enrollment, subsidies to the women’s college, years of enrollment data, posting of 990′s and institutional audits.  To call this a lack of transparency or suggest that it disregards alumnae demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the respective roles of the alumnae constituencies and the Board.  It is the Board’s responsibility to make the determination of how the institution will move forward, and they are reviewing all relevant materials and listening carefully to all the dialogue taking place.

Secondly, please understand that CCW alumnae have been and are involved in the Board’s work and decision-making, including its efforts to re-imagine undergraduate education at Chatham University in light of current needs.  Fifteen of the 29 current members of the current Board members are CCW alumnae.  In addition, four CCW alumnae, including the president of the Chatham University Alumni Association, serve on the Board as Alumni Trustees.  The Alumni Association Board is regularly briefed by the administration during its meetings, and in November the Alumni Association Board knew of the study about whether a parallel undergraduate college could be created to help make up for the faltering CCW enrollment.

A great deal of Chatham University’s success, in fact, can be attributed to the many dedicated CCW alumnae who have served on the Board and/or have volunteered as recruiters, fundraisers, mentors and the like.  The hard truth, however, is that despite the best efforts of these and other dedicated and talented alumnae, the model of undergraduate education that they knew as undergraduates at Chatham (a model dedicated to the premise that the way to best serve the cause of women’s advancement is to keep a women’s only classroom) has failed and no amount of tinkering with respect to tactics is likely to solve the undergraduate enrollment problem.  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.  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.  We are small and getting smaller in the undergraduate college, and will put both our effort to support women at the undergraduate level and our graduate programs at risk if we do not act, and act now.  What is needed now is not more efforts to reinvent the wheel or make tweaks to the existing model.  The Board has tried many of these things in the past, and has concluded that they are unlikely to yield the kind of major improvement needed.

What is needed now, and what has sustained and inspired this institution since its founding, are creative, strategic and indeed progressive ideas to reinvigorate undergraduate education and make it more relevant to today’s times and students, all within a reorganized University structure.  One such idea that some alumni have suggested, and that we are exploring, is to create something akin to Rutgers’ Douglass Residential College which combines a living/learning program that in addition to single sex housing, offers special themed housing with focused academic advising and mentoring by alumnae for the students who opt to participate.  We could also create, again in Douglass’ image, an Institute or Center to put together existing leadership programs, a Chatham Residential College, and future initiatives, such as a Center for Women and Health that I hope one day will come into existence.  We would not be abandoning our mission to women’s advancement in taking this path, but we would be taking note of the fact that things have changed since we were founded just after the Civil War.

The Board’s thinking, admittedly driven initially by low enrollments, has also been inspired by a more contemporary interpretation of Chatham’s mission.  We no longer need to create access to higher education as the expression of the mission to women; but there is still need for attention to women’s career advancement and leadership opportunities.  We need to respect and honor women’s views of their own needs.  Is it right, when 98% of the college bound high school girls feel that this is not something that will best serve THEM, that we simply declare them wrong about their own needs and wishes?  Or is it better to say that we will take the remarkable expertise of our faculty in teaching in women, developed over the history of the institution, and will create a coeducational institution that is different, one that has classrooms conducted in a way that educates both men and women about gender equality?  This equality, we all agree, is not the predominant mood in the many coeducational classrooms, especially those which have not had the benefit of having been in a single sex institution.

It is my hope that the discussion of the future of undergraduate education at Chatham also includes consideration of issues of gender, education and social justice.  Chatham was founded as an institution in pursuit of addressing a social wrong: the exclusion of women from higher learning.  Today, when the many issues surrounding gender include some of the most important civil rights issues, are we going to say as it relates to education that ONLY being a traditional women’s college, with ONLY gender segregated classrooms, is the ONLY way to recognize and honor the demands of gender?  Aren’t the issues more subtle than that?  That is one reason that some Chatham faculty are proposing not just an institute on women, but rather an institute on gender and social equity, to acknowledge and advance the complex issues of gender, identity, and equality in contemporary society.

Finally, we are sometimes asked whether Chatham will be able to attract men, or whether we are not just turning to men to “solve our problems.”  This is about recruiting more students, both women and men, and we will certainly recruit more women.  I am so disappointed when people ask “why would men want to come here?” thus betraying a real inferiority complex.  Chatham has so many good things: a rising reputation as a regional leader, having jumped nearly 20 spots in our rankings as a northeast regional university; national and international recognition for our School of Sustainability and Eden Hall campus; a fabulous faculty who are stellar teachers and scholars; and being in a city repeatedly judged America’s best city in which to live.  Why wouldn’t people want to come to Chatham?

This is a tremendous opportunity.  It is an opportunity to rethink undergraduate education, and our existence as an institution.  It is an opportunity to engage with the big issues of what we offer and how we offer it.  For example, we just laid fiber optic cable among our three teaching sites: Woodland Road, East Side and Eden Hall.  How do we share academic resources, and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time, among those sites as well as more broadly, and thus create new ways of providing our academic programs?  In 1992, we changed our mission even more fundamentally; we stopped being a purely residential, undergraduate, liberal arts institution for women.  We became an institution that was also graduate and online, and coeducational at the upper levels.  Now we have an opportunity to think again about how to preserve what we most value: Chatham itself, superior educational programs of service to our community and country, and social justice, especially in service to the advancement of women.

I, together with many others, sincerely hope that the many brilliant women who graduated from Chatham will see the need to change and put all their efforts toward making an institution that is just as relevant and valuable to the future of our society as Chatham was when it was founded in 1869.


Esther B.