Chatham vs. Alumni – Evolution and Symbiosis

Over the past few months, there has been some occasional reporting and discussion in the Pittsburgh media on the May 1 decision by the Board of Trustees of Chatham University to open undergraduate admission to men beginning next year.

Chatham is one of the premier undergraduate colleges for women, founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania College for Women. The school prominently counts among its alumnae the biologist, conservationist, and Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson, who is generally considered a patron saint of the environmental movement.

Ms. Carson is recognized primarily for her book Silent Spring, which influenced public policy-making with regard to environmental issues, most notably with the banning of the pesticide DDT. Depending upon whose scientific account you believe, you can probably thank Rachel Carson for all those bald eagles we enjoy around here nowadays.

The university, which already offers graduate degrees to both men and women, is experiencing a period of growth and risk. They are presently undertaking the ambitious expansion of a new satellite campus in Richland Township, at the former location of Eden Hall Farm. This campus will serve as the home of Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability, and is being designed “using the latest in environmentally responsible technology, design and innovation”,  in part to honor the legacy of Ms. Carson.

The university cited financial trends and forecasts affecting single-gender colleges, and this expansion of its physical plant in the face of declining undergraduate enrollment, as among the factors influencing its decision.

There is also a vocal group of alumnae who are, as one might expect, not pleased with the decision to go co-ed. These alumnae leveraged several social media platforms, including a blog and website, under the name Save Chatham.

As you might expect, both sides of the argument bring forward lots of information to back their positions. I won’t go into all of the details here. The university says that Chatham needs to be co-ed in order to continue to exist. That’s an issue of contention for those who value their prior experience as students there, and want to see those traditions extended to future generations of young women.

Those alumnae that disagree have succeeded in gaining traction for their cause among a larger group of Chatham graduates, garnering as many as 2000 likes on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Apparently feeling a need to adjust the nature of their existence to a longer-term model in the wake of the decision by the school to go co-ed, they polled those who frequent their social media sites for ideas to rename the group for its continued purpose.

The winner – Chatham College Independent Alumni Association (CCIAA) – has generated some questionable and perhaps disingenuous legal activity on the part of the university.

The 4 alumnae who founded Save Chatham/CCIAA received a cease and desist letter from legal counsel for the university, alleging trademark infringement on the name “Chatham”, which according the Save Chatham blog the University applied for earlier this month.

It appears that the university is concerned about confusion between any “Independent” group of alumni using the word “Chatham” to advocate for positions that the Board of Trustees sees as “contrary to Chatham’s mission and interests”.

The reaction by the alumnae involved has been one of caution and preparedness. They secured their own legal counsel, which replied to the university’s letter last Friday, declining to change the name of the association.

Per the letter and the Save Chatham website, the trademark action that Chatham University took on June 6 identifies it as providing “Educational services, namely, providing courses of instruction at the undergraduate and graduate level; alumni organization services”.

There are lots of Chatham High Schools, and other educational institutions in this country sharing that name, who are engaged in largely the same activity – I don’t think they’ll be asked to change their names because a college in Pittsburgh feels threatened by the actions of some “rogue” alumnae who refuse to accept the university’s decision, and/or move on.

Regardless of what you think about the efforts of these alumnae, they have the right to dissent, and to organize others who are sympathetic to their cause. It’s hypocritical for the university to encourage reasonable, academic discourse within its walls, while attempting to discourage it elsewhere.

Considering the likelihood that many Chatham alumnae have expressed their displeasure regarding the change, and may continue to express themselves by withholding financial support, the university seems to be more interested in reducing the effectiveness of this new group of “independent” alumni, by attempting to use an overly broad definition of trademark infringement.

I’m no lawyer, but the university’s actions feel like a prelude to a SLAPP – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Should the university sue, its underlying purpose could be just to intimidate this new alumni effort into changing their name or otherwise minimizing the impact of their mission, whatever that might eventually be.  There is legislation pending in the Pa. Senate to reduce the effectiveness of SLAPP suits.  Let’s hope it won’t be needed.

Both entities are in the midst of evolutionary change – Chatham University appears to be jumping into the race with other regional colleges and universities for students and education dollars. These campaigns seem to be taking up more advertising space, signaling another uncomfortable trend among what are supposed to be non-profit institutions. As we’ve seen locally, non-profits can be as nasty as their corporate counterparts.

CCIAA was created and energized in response to the significant change put forth by the university, but will also be challenged in the future to find issues worthy of discussion and advocacy beyond a conflict that may be moot once the first male freshmen matriculate in the fall of 2015. The group’s Facebook page contains a link to a form for interested alumnae to register their areas of interest, and provide feedback for the organization’s continued existence.

Will Chatham University and a breakaway alumni group be forced into a symbiotic existence, a close union of two dissimilar organisms? Perhaps a disjunctive symbiosis, where the organisms are not in bodily union but nonetheless gain some type of biological advantage from the relationship.

It’s either that, or the alumni that refuse to accept these changes in their beloved institution risk falling into a tragic obscurity, like the Ellen Jamesians in The World According to Garp.

It’s the kind of biological conundrum that might have impressed Rachel Carson herself.

Have a good week ahead.

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One Response to Chatham vs. Alumni – Evolution and Symbiosis

  1. Pingback: Chatham vs. Alumni – An Update | John Linko

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