For the first time in its 145-year history, Chatham University will accept men into its undergraduate program.
University trustees voted for the change Thursday. University President Esther Barazzone said it was not a unanimous vote, but it was close. The change will take effect in the fall of 2015 with recruitment efforts to start immediately.
Trustees cited the school's dwindling enrollment and the need to remain viable as the reason for the switch.
“Our most solemn duty as trustees is to ensure the future of our institution and it’s financial solvency,” said Board President Jennifer Potter. “While this was primarily a business decision, it is been taken with the utmost concern for perpetuating Chatham’s unique strengths and to continue to providing the values and quality Chatham has always stood for.”
Officials said the freshman class has shrunk by 50 percent since 2008, and at the current rate, the class will have fewer than 350 students within five years, unless the school admits men.
But not everyone saw the need for the change. More than a dozen protesters rallied at the campus ahead of the vote. They said they felt the switch would fundamentally alter the college for the worse, and that the school was seeking an easy fix. After the vote, they said they felt ignored.
“Chatham had a 145 year legacy of education women and they have decided that is no longer relevant and that is, unfortunately, not true,” said class of 2008 alumna Kate DiStefano.
But, board member Jane Burger said not everybody feels that way.
“We have many supporters” Burger said. “Many of them are a lot quieter than the ones, I’m sure, that you have heard from if you’ve looked at any of the blogs or read your mail. We also have some doubters and it is now going to be a very important job to bring everyone back into the fold, and we are aware of that.”
Barazzone said this decision was reached through a year of meetings with faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders. She said this was a far-sighted and strategic decision.
“In order to address our single-gender status before it becomes a financial problem,” she said. “This is not in response to a financial problem for the institution as it exists now, but in order to avert one.”
Trustees also voted to establish The Chatham University Women's Institute, which would focus on entrepreneurship and political programs and include new women's health and gender studies programs. It's being funded with an $8.5 million budget from endowments, revenues and commitments.
The Shadyside school was founded in 1869 as The Pennsylvania Female College.