Response to Save Chatham “Board Book”

The following is a letter sent to the administrators of the Save Chatham website in response to the “Board Book” developed by the website administrators and sent to the Chatham Board of Trustees.

Dear Ms. Dawkins, Hagan, Lunsford, McCabe, McKown and Stulga:

I have received the material which you sent to me and the other members of Chatham University’s Board of Trustees, seeking a delay of the Board’s consideration of a proposal to implement undergraduate coeducation at Chatham University.  Since much of the contents of your communication were addressed to me as “Dear Esther” letters, I think it is appropriate for me to answer you personally.

Before I turn to the contents of your letter, however, it is important to address something in your cover letter, lest it sow confusion among those who read it.  You assert there that your material has been presented “on behalf of all 6,000 alumnae and particularly the nearly 2,000 supporters of Save Chatham who have joined our online community.”  That is simply not so, and I suspect Board members are unlikely to take such an overstatement on face value.  To any Chatham Board member who might be inclined to give this particular assertion more credence than it warrants, however, I would say that the material you sent the Board represents the views of a small but passionate group of Chatham College for Women (CCW) alumnae who have been among the most vocal in opposition to the Board’s Resolution calling for a proposal on undergraduate coeducation.

Turning now to the contents of your letter, I would like to address the first page with its five questions that, according to you, Board members must answer affirmatively or else vote “no” to the proposal on undergraduate coeducation.  While I disagree that any or all of the five questions you pose should be dispositive (especially no. 2, for reasons you will see), I will answer each seriatim:

1.     Have you effectively engaged alumnae in efforts to recruit and retain female students?

YES.  Alumnae (along with many others in the Chatham community) have always been involved in recruiting efforts in various capacities; with some of the most current efforts taking place as recently as this spring. Examples of alumnae involvement through the years include volunteering at on-campus and community events with students and families, the Rachel Carson Book Award, attendance at fairs, communication from alumnae to prospective students and much more.

Alumnae do love their alma mater and their experience, but even their best organizational efforts cannot translate into a “fix” for the declining popularity of women’s colleges. Across the sector, young women are voting with their feet and tuition dollars and not attending women’s colleges like they once did. Other institutions that have faced this issue also illustrate the challenges of this approach. For example, when Mills College first contemplated coeducation, it experienced a burst of volunteer effort that sadly never translated into the goals that the Board mandated for the alumnae in their version of the delay that you have requested at Chatham.

2.     Have you used available financial resources prudently and without bias?

NO.  In a bias toward CCW and to the detriment of the rest of Chatham University, we have been directing unsustainable levels of financial resources toward CCW in areas including marketing, financial aid, recruitment, fundraising, student support (discount rate and scholarships), facilities and more. This year, for example, the rest of the University has subsidized CCW to the tune of $5.2M, a number expected to rise to $7.7M if current levels of enrollment continue.  This is neither prudent nor without bias, and is one of the reasons the Board is considering undergraduate coeducation.

In this section, as in others, you buttress your argument with facts that belie a fundamental misunderstanding of the documents you cite.  For instance, the Cayman Island investments that you mention are an offshore investment vehicle, consisting of primarily equity investments in the endowment, the revenue from which has been vital to growing Chatham’s endowment that supports the entire University.  These particular investment vehicles, as with all the others with which Chatham has been involved, have passed muster with Chatham’s outside professional accountants and auditors.

3.     Have you consistently maintained personnel vital to the function of, and recruitment for, the College for Women?

YES. We consistently maintain appropriate levels of personnel to recruit students to CCW.  In fact, although there are more than twice as many graduate students as undergraduates at Chatham University, there are more front line recruiting staff (counselors, ambassadors) dedicated to CCW recruiting. We currently have five recruiters for CCW compared to three full-time recruiters for the College of Graduate Studies, one for the Falk School graduate programs and one for the College of Continuing & Professional Studies. At the same time, we have between 18-20 Undergraduate Student Ambassadors who assist in recruiting efforts for CCW compared to 3-4 Graduate Student Ambassadors.  While we have had turnover in the Vice President position, this has been attributable in no small part to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining admissions leaders who understand full well the difficulties of recruiting for a women’s college.

4.     Have you maintained a properly impaneled Board of Trustees at all times?

YES. Chatham University is fortunate to have one of the most dedicated, hard-working Board of Trustees one could find in higher education.

Your critiques here are based on some fundamental misunderstandings of the By-Laws which you conflate into alleged “violations.”  For instance, one of your alleged “violations” is that “there are currently 15 of 29 trustees that are alumnae, including Gail Emery, Class of 1984, who currently serves as the President of the Alumni Association.”  The By-Laws, however, do not limit the number of CCW alumnae who may serve on the Board.  The By-Laws include a separate category of Trustee, the Alumni Trustee (created around the time Chatham instituted coed graduate programs as a way of ensuring that there would always be at least some alumnae representation on the Board), of which there are no more than five at any given time and who serve for short periods.  There are four Alumni Trustees on the Board now, including Gail Emery.  In addition, there are fifteen alumnae of CCW on the Board now, including the current Board Chair.  You should feel good about that!  We do.  We have worked hard to ensure that CCW alumnae are well represented on the Board.  What you have done is try to turn a virtue into a vice.

5.     Have you been fully open and honest with Trustees, Alumni Association Board members, alumnae, current students, and the public about the motivation behind the co-education proposal?

YES, and I take offense at your suggestion that we have been anything but open and honest.  While I respect your right to disagree with me and the other members of the Board, I will not have my or the Board’s integrity impugned.  What other motivation could we possibly have other than that which we have shared in town halls; public forums; one-on-one meetings, communications, and phone calls; the blog; and through all the other outreach we have done the past two months?

The truth is the Board wants the same thing as you: to save Chatham.  I have worked with the Board, including many current members of the Board, toward that goal for 22 years.  No one can possibly say that I or the Board have not been dedicated to preserving the women’s college.  But times and circumstances change, and although the Board and I appreciate the special place that Chatham College for Women holds in your hearts (as noted above, 19 Trustees are CCW alumnae) and your desire to see it remain as it was when you attended, we have come to the realization that in the face of serious megatrends (e.g., “Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops” (Bloomberg, April 14, 2014, cites a Harvard Business School report predicting that as many as half of the 4,000 small colleges and universities in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years) we must take steps now to maximize enrollment growth lest Chatham University end up having nothing left to carry on the remarkable legacy of CCW and its many alumnae.  If undergraduate enrollment continues to fall, we will be in the same position we were in twenty years ago: forced to cut programs, faculty and staff.  That would not be good either for our current undergraduate students or the students we would like to attract in the future.  What choice would you make?

This is not the time for delay.  This is the time for action and change to ensure our continued survival and success.

This brings me to a final point.  Regrettably, it has become apparent that what is happening at Chatham University is no different than what happened at other women’s colleges that have considered coeducation.  At those schools, small but very vocal groups of alumnae greeted the initial consideration of coeducation with a mixture of disbelief and aspersions cast on those who bear the news of what must happen – whether the message bearers be administrators, board members or outside consultants – whose credibility and professionalism they assail in the lead up to the vote on coeducation.

I will conclude where I started: by appealing personally to the six women to whom I addressed this letter, and to those who may have collaborated on the production of your document.  Rather than be stuck in the past, a past that is not working and will only prevent Chatham University from realizing its rich potential, please work with us to imagine and realize Chatham’s bright future.  I hope that you will not follow through on your threats to direct your efforts and financial support to any college other than the one that nurtured you and helped make you the strong, intelligent women you are today.  To do so would seem to be like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

It is my fervent hope, and I am sure that of the Board’s as well, that you will remain engaged with Chatham and help take it to even higher levels of success in the years to come.

Sincerely yours,

Esther L. Barazzone, Ph.D.