Leadership & Governance

A Women’s College Goes Coed and Works to Preserve Its Mission

Esther L. Barazzone, Chatham University

September 28, 2015
Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz
For the first time, Chatham University is enrolling men in its undergraduate programs. President Esther L. Barazzone talks about how the Pittsburgh institution is staying true to its values.


SARA HEBEL: Hi. I'm here with Esther Barazzone, the president of Chatham University. Welcome.

ESTHER BARAZZONE: Thank you. Delighted to be with you.

SARA HEBEL: You are in your last year of your presidency after 23 years. Tell me what's changed the most about the higher-education landscape since you first started.

ESTHER BARAZZONE: I think the biggest change is the recognition that great change is needed probably. And I think that it's good that there are serious national attention now to the questions of the importance of higher education, the value of higher education. Of course, today, it's pretty clear that they are greatly important to the country as well as to the students. But there's an engagement with the question nationally that I think is really important.

SARA HEBEL: You've made big changes at Chatham. What's the most difficult thing about shifting a campus as you have? You've made it coed, added graduate programs, done some other things there.

ESTHER BARAZZONE: The most difficult thing is running up against tradition. One of the things that I advise people who are thinking about change is try not to worry too much about tradition because it will always sort itself. So that I think is the hardest. And, not facetiously, the hardest is to make sure the change, in an appropriate way, reflects tradition. Because in tradition, are, of course, buried deep values and important values. So you do need to think about how change is not just wholesale difference but it is in some way demonstrably continuous with the purposes of the institution.

SARA HEBEL: What's one example of how you made that happen there?

ESTHER BARAZZONE: I think coeducation at Chatham is an example of that, though everyone may not yet see it that way, as we looked at the necessity, the financial necessity, of becoming coeducational as our undergraduate enrollment became one-quarter of our total enrollment due to the growth of graduate programs. It was very important to us, nonetheless, to really honor the mission to women's education and to women's leadership.

So we thought very hard about how could we be coeducational in a way that honored the needs of the men who came here, but what was also continuous with our tradition to women's leadership. So we studied places that, while they weren't women's colleges, seemed to do a very good job with women's leadership, such as Rutgers University.

That even though Douglass [College] is not as it was, still programs to women's leadership has very important work in women in politics, has a women's institute. And so we chose to be an intelligent follower about some of those things. So while we're not a women's college any longer, we definitely still have a mission to women's leadership.

SARA HEBEL: Speaking of women in leadership, how has that landscape changed in higher education since you've been there, and why do you feel it's important to have more women in roles such as yours?

ESTHER BARAZZONE: Well, it's really pretty exciting to see the president of Harvard be a distinguished female historian. To have seen the president of Duke be the president of Wellesley, a women's college. That I think was all really important. But it's terribly important for everyone. People need to see people like themselves in leadership in order to believe that that kind of growth and capacity is really possible.

SARA HEBEL: Why have you stayed in the job for so long?

ESTHER BARAZZONE: Because it's been thrilling. Sometimes I have teased that times were either too hard or too bad or too good to go. But Chatham is a wonderful place, a very high-quality place, where, really, everyone at the institution has been engaged with the question of what is the best education for the 21st century? And how can we fight all the odds that are out there against small institutions, particularly small liberal-arts institutions? Which we know about. Standard & Poor's codified it with downgrading all of us last year.

And Chatham's been aware of those challenges probably longer than most and has been having very philosophical, meaningful discussions, not just knee-jerk program development or intensified recruitment, about change in higher ed. So it's been a very stimulating place. And Pittsburgh is a very encouraging place for all the institutions in it, where we're made to feel that we matter. So we're also part of the fabric of the community. So it's been really a gratifying place to be.

SARA HEBEL: Finally, I ask you — what would you do differently?

ESTHER BARAZZONE: Oh, many things I'm sure. Many things. But all in all, I'm quite satisfied with what we've been able to accomplish at Chatham, and I feel very good about the foundation that is left for a new president. And I've chosen the time to leave when I felt the institution was stable and on a rise. Our enrollments are growing.

We have almost two times — more than two times — the incoming first-year class than we had. We have a brand-new campus, the world's first carbon-neutral campus. And so we're doing some very important things that I think will just be a wonderful platform for a new president to think even further about what higher ed needs in the future.

SARA HEBEL: Thanks for being here.

ESTHER BARAZZONE: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Sara Hebel is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle. She directs a team of editors and reporters who cover broad trends in higher education and the people who grapple with them. Follow her on Twitter @shebel, or email her at sara.hebel@chronicle.com