Chatham vs. Alumni – An Update

In late June I wrote about the disagreement between Chatham University administration and a vocal alumni group over the university’s decision to open its undergraduate programs to men.

At that time I expressed concern over what appeared to be Chatham’s attempt to unfairly silence those alumni through a questionable trademark infringement claim. I also expressed concern for those alumni still galvanized by the university’s decision to go co-ed, but were perhaps struggling for a sense of purpose or direction with which to take their efforts. I felt this was important to the group’s relevance into the future, especially considering the university’s seeming intransigence about the finality of its decision.

Since then what started as Save Chatham, and then became the Chatham College Independent Alumni Association, has yet again re-branded itself in response to both the trademark harassment by the university, and what appears to be a well-considered need to expand beyond the boundaries of their initial mission.

In a July 28 letter to Chatham’s President and Trustees, the newly named Filiae Nostrae Society made their intentions clear:

So take the family name. Chatham, as both an institution and a brand, no longer holds real value. Your daughters are breaking ties.

The letter expands upon this separation further, in similarly blunt language. It’s worth a complete read, if for no other reason than to appreciate the continued passion and discontent present among these alumni.

The group’s new, English-friendly website, ourdaughtersourfuture.com, explains the name change as having its origins in Chatham’s motto, Filiae Nostrae Sicut Antarii Lapides. This translates to an excerpt from Psalms 144:12 (KJV):

That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.

In a continuing search for feedback from interested alumni, the group received several ideas that they summarized in a blog post on July 30. These included serving as a connecting point of like-minded alumni through social media such as LinkedIn, but also to support those women-only colleges that continue to hold fast to that tradition, and to direct funding toward those institutions – and presumably away from Chatham.

So much for that symbiotic existence that I speculated about.

Disagreements about Chatham’s state of affairs spilled over into the pages of local mainstream media following a lengthy Tribune-Review story at the end of June.

The story detailed considerable turnover among university administrators, and difficulties that some had experienced with the organizational culture at that level. Chatham President Esther Barazzone, as well as current members of the Board of Trustees, declined comment for the story. The Trib also reported something that I believe is significant:

Many of the two dozen former Chatham employees contacted by the Trib…declined to comment for the record, citing a culture in academia that frowns on speaking out of place.

Two weeks later, the Trib ran an op-ed penned by three current Chatham trustees, criticizing the paper’s reporting on staff turnover, reiterating their reasons for going co-ed, and reaffirming that the university’s finances are “quite sound”. They concluded their comments by stating:

The quality of our faculty, students and programs is very high. These are the stories that should be told about change at Chatham.

Translation – The media should write about what we tell them to write, regardless of empirical and/or colloquial evidence to the contrary. The Trib included an Editor’s Note: On July 3, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services issued a negative outlook on a new BBB-rated $18 million bond issue for Chatham University.  That sounded to me like the Trib replying, “Thanks. We stand by our reporting, and we’ll report about what we want”.

To me this is the continuation of a disturbing trend among colleges and universities that attempt to frame and control the message, and try to silence those who dissent. This is an example of why the sidebar of this blog features news from FIRE, which specializes in identifying and shedding light on attempts to stifle free expression on campus.

This is not to say that I agree with everything being put forth on the other side of the argument.  I applaud the efforts of Filiae Nostrae to expand their scope of influence beyond what is probably a lost cause, but I’m still concerned about their approach.

The society’s most recent letter to Chatham makes reference to scripture as part of its criticism – specifically, the verse preceding the above verse from which Chatham’s motto is derived:

Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.   Psalm 144:11 (KJV)

The letter seems to apply this as an ironic representation of what Chatham attempted to do with their threat to sue their own alumni for daring to disagree with them.

I have to wonder, however, if the alumni group’s desire to steadfastly embrace women-only colleges could be interpreted as their desire to deliver those colleges “from the hand of strange children…”, that being the presence and/or influence of men, despite whatever hard data that may be out there to justify Chatham’s position that change was inevitable to assure their viability.

With that, I have the following observations before moving on:

  • Chatham has the right to pursue whatever legal course their governing bodies see fit for the continued survival of the institution.
  • Dissenting alumni have the right to dissent, in whatever form and under whatever name that dissent may take within the boundaries of law.
  • Chatham was wrong to try to silence the alumni by threatening litigation. Their move to hastily establish trademarks is bad form for such a ‘dignified’ institution.
  • The dissenting alumni seem to be tilting at the windmills of change in the higher education world, which may render their favored business model unsustainable under any set of circumstances. They need to be prepared to accept that.
  • Institutions of higher education that take steps to stifle the free, unfettered expression of ideas are working against the very reasons they exist in a society that values freedom and self-reliance.
  • I see area colleges and universities committing more and more financial resources to marketing their institutions. Print, broadcast, billboard, and other advertising mechanisms seem to feature ads from these institutions with increasing frequency – money that is perhaps being taken away from uses such as improved online options or better pay and benefits for adjunct faculty. It seems counterproductive, and not in keeping with the values inherent in a supposedly benevolent, not-for-profit institution.

The end of summer looms ahead, and with it serious business. Enjoy it while you can.

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