Chatham Views

Letter to the Editor: Change or Perish

The following op-ed from current and former Board Chairs of Chatham University was submitted and published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in response to a June 29th article on Chatham.

Change or Perish

A willingness to change and try new things has transformed Chatham University from a struggling, 500 student liberal arts undergraduate women’s college to a comprehensive, financially sound, highly ranked university that provides excellent education to more than 2,100 students.  Under the leadership of its President, Dr. Esther Barazzone, Chatham has grown and prospered by embracing change, anticipating what students will need in the future, and adapting to changing circumstances.

The Tribune-Review’s recent article on Chatham ignores the truth of Chatham’s present circumstances and accomplishments.  Instead, it takes as “fact” the opinions of a few former employees and is filled with errors and wrong conclusions.

It is simply not true, for example, that the Board’s recent decision on coeducation had anything to do with “faltering finances and high turnover among senior staff.”  The decision was based on the Board’s understanding that persisting in offering women-only undergraduate education was financially unsustainable.

Chatham’s financial situation is quite sound.  Our cash operations have been in the black for the last several years even without drawing anything from our endowment for 44 months after the 2008 recession.  Chatham has a positive financial outlook and investment-grade bond rating.  The primary reason Chatham’s “expenses outstripped revenue in three of the past six years” is because Chatham does not fund depreciation.

Similarly, the coed decision had nothing to do with staff turnover.  As the article admits, the average tenure among senior staff at Chatham (6 years) is in line with the national average (6.1 years).  Chatham’s graduate and undergraduate program faculty leaders have served 12 years on average.  And the two most recent additions to the Senior Leadership team, both promoted from within the institution, have been at Chatham 18 and 33 years, respectively.

We understand that change is hard for some people to accept.  But the demand for change—in a sector historically very slow to do so—is accelerating, creating opportunities for new ways of doing things and rewarding institutions that adapt to the times.

The higher education sector must change its old way of doing things (e.g., continuing under enrolled programs, not holding faculty and staff accountable for performance, creating systems in which students take far too long to complete degrees).  If institutions do not change, then as recently predicted by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years.

Chatham has changed with the times and has been rewarded and recognized for doing so.  We have been recognized as one of the top regional universities in the Northeast.  We have won national and international recognition and support for our new sustainability initiatives.  The quality of our faculty students and programs is very high.  These are the stories that should be told about change at Chatham.

Each of the signatories below has served as Chair of Chatham’s Board of Trustees during Dr. Barazzone’s presidency.  We are proud of all that she, the senior leadership and Chatham’s faculty and employees have achieved, and thankful that they have helped Chatham adapt to meet students’ needs of today and tomorrow.

Jane Burger ‘66
Sigo Falk
Jennifer Potter ‘66
S. Murray Rust III