Notre Dame attempts to find her place as a women’s college in today’s world
By Christine Roa and Ciarese De Torres
When Hood College decided to grant men residential status in 2002, Notre Dame became the last remaining women’s college in Maryland. But with only 36 others left in the country, the question of whether the university will ever succumb to the pressures of coeducation is ever-lingering. Upon investigation of the recent rumors surrounding Notre Dame’s single-sex status, Columns is pleased to report that the university will remain an all-women’s institution—that is, for now.
Last October, Notre Dame’s Innovative Revenue Sources (IRS) Committee presented at a Board of Trustees meeting, proposing a total of 54 ideas on how to potentially raise revenue for the university. These strategies ranged from dual-enrollment programs to professional subscription services but the most promising were strategic alliances, land development partnerships, and coeducation.
“These three ideas were things that we thought would move the needle a little bit more significantly, bringing in more money for the university,” states Dr. Charles Yoe, a business and economics professor and a member of the IRS Committee.
Ultimately, the Board of Trustees dictates whether the coed proposal should even be considered in the first place. “Right now, this is just a committee recommendation that we have a conversation about it. But the Board decides whether that conversation should even be had or not. I can tell you that that has not been decided,” assures Dr. Charles Yoe. As of now, no logistical planning has been made. Meanwhile, Mr. Christian Kendzierski, the Assistant Vice President (AVP) for University Communications, explains that “if the Board were to decide to explore this particular idea further, a significant amount of dialogue and research, including alignment with the mission, would need to occur before any decisions were made.”
But the plan for coeducation is overwhelmingly complex. “Coeducation was so big that we, the committee, really couldn’t do a detailed study of this right now,” notes Dr. Yoe.
Notre Dame is no stranger to the particular challenges that many women’s colleges face. Spurred by declining enrollments, a Tri-College Committee consisting of Notre Dame, Loyola Maryland University, and Mount Saint Agnes College, proposed in 1970 that Loyola join the two sister institutions in a federation.
In response, Sister Kathleen Feeley, who would later reign as Notre Dame’s president from 1971 to 1992, organized a broad-based community discussion on the college’s identity and direction—widely known as Quest ‘70. More than 150 participants attended the Day of Dialogue including 11 members of the Board of Trustees, 55 faculty members, 60 students, and 38 alumnae, parents, and friends.
A Columns editorial at the time recalls, “Overwhelmingly, the decision was in favor of remaining a women’s college, with strong emphasis placed on the desirability of extensive cooperation with the other colleges.” The Day of Dialogue demonstrated the community’s willingness to cooperate but not to merge.
Consequently, Notre Dame turned down the merger proposal on September 1970. Instead, the college looked to academic cooperation with Loyola-Mount Saint Agnes, as well as a revitalization of its women-focused educational programs.
Nevertheless, women’s colleges continue to face alarming statistics. Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States. Today, only 37 remain.
The sad reality is that women’s colleges have become a dying species, and it all boils down to finances. Mary Pat Seurkamp, Notre Dame’s first lay president, remarks in a 2003 interview with The Daily Record that it’s important to look at how financially feasible it is to maintain a women’s college. “If you can’t make it work, it’s going to lead institutions to look at other things like do they need to go coed, do they need to consider a merger, or do they need to just close—which is not a happy story,” she says.
Besides financial issues, less women have expressed interest in attending women-only institutions. According to the Women’s College Coalition, an association and voice for women’s colleges in the United States and Canada, only about 2 percent of female high school seniors will even consider applying to a single-sex institution and less than 1 percent of full-time female college students today attend a women’s college. Therefore, admitting men would theoretically increase the number of female applicants who would otherwise overlook single-sex institutions.
However, Gerizza Balmes, a junior behavioral neuroscience major, offers an interesting perspective on the profitability of coeducation. “In my opinion, coeducation would not increase revenue because we already have competition with other Collegetown schools,” says Balmes. “Notre Dame would not offer as much as other nearby coed universities such as Loyola, in terms of resources and selection of studies. I wouldn’t have considered it were it not for its historical appeal.”
Even then, won’t integrating men into an all-women’s institution prove to be just as costly? Some would argue that in order to accommodate the influx of new students, extensive renovations and improvements to infrastructure, such as dormitories and bathrooms, would become a necessity. Not to mention, the athletic program would also have to include men’s sports teams in accordance with the equal opportunity provisions of Title IX.
However, Dr. Yoe discusses that “since enrollment in the Women’s College has been pretty steadily declining, we have excess capacity, meaning we wouldn’t have to build new buildings to accommodate an influx of students.”
Recently, Dr. Marylou Yam, Notre Dame’s President, released a statement explaining that “it is important to remember that [going coed] was specific to the existing traditional undergraduate experience because Notre Dame, as a whole, is already a coeducational university.” In fact, the first male student was admitted in the spring of 1975, and men currently constitute approximately 14 percent of the student population whether through enrollment in the graduate, adult undergraduate, or certificate programs. Luckily, Notre Dame’s financial status and enrollment figures seem to be quite promising.
This fall semester welcomed the largest class of incoming students to the Women’s College since 2004: 179 new students were admitted into the undergraduate program. There are currently 450 full-time students enrolled in the Women’s College which is 135 students shy from that of fall 2004.
Notre Dame also underwent a comprehensive financial review from July 2015 to December 2016, as well as an accompanying resource allocation review of the university’s departments. Mr. Kendzierski reveals that Notre Dame has operated at a “positive net operational balance in both 2016 and 2017.” But with the ever-increasing financial pressure to transition into coeducation, what place does a women’s college have in today’s world?
“The reality is that even though women have accomplished great things, there is not equality yet in our society,” Mary Pat Seurkamp responds when faced with a similar question in 2003. “So it is important for us to continue to provide the kind of environment that allows women to explore fully all of the opportunities that can be before them that should be choices that they can have.”
“It has an essential place,” Dr. Yam agrees. “Right now, there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of gender equity and that’s a critical role that women’s colleges play today. We hear our students say that they feel that the women’s college experience builds their confidence. They’re able to find their voice, an advantage that the women’s college offers.”
Katherine Salim, a senior chemistry major, eloquently reflects on how Notre Dame as an all-women’s college has fostered her growth as a leader. “As I was surrounded with an increasing number of supportive female classmates, I began to realize the value of my opinions and my self-worth,” Salim says. “Reflecting back four years later, I never could have imagined the immense confidence I have in myself to both command a room and understand a complicated chemistry concept. This rewarding experience has shaped me into the fearless woman I am today.”
Certainly, a major appeal of women’s colleges is that they allow for the formation of a subculture that is separate from the dominant culture. The normalization of the male narrative is so pervasive in today’s society that for many women, it is refreshing and empowering to be in an environment where they are given a voice to explore their own ideas and a space to grow as leaders.
“Having been surrounded by these leaders for my entire college experience, I have been taught to bring a voice to those who feel left behind while lighting a way to encourage other students to step beyond their comfort zone and lead with me,” adds Salim.
On January 18, Dr. Yam released a statement to clarify that the university is not implementing the coed proposal as of now. Nonetheless, it spurred strong reactions from the student body.
Emily Lamartina, a senior political science major, jump-started an online petition titled “Keep Notre Dame All Women” in response to the email, claiming, “We do not feel a coed undergraduate program would fit with the school’s history or its values. Nor does it fit with the values of the Notre Dame community.”
The petition has already garnered nearly 250 signatures (and counting) since its inception—a testament to how greatly Notre Dame’s identity as a women’s institution resonates with its community.
A passionate discussion inevitably ensued and students and alumnae alike shared their personal testimonies on the forum. An overwhelming majority vehemently opposed to the idea of coeducation.
“We have a proud history as a women’s college. Going coed will destroy the mission of the university,” discloses Lauren Rohrs, a fellow Notre Dame graduate student.
Dr. Yam comments that student engagement on the issue has been a positive outcome because it shows how much students truly care about Notre Dame’s status as a women’s college.
The Concerned Students organization was quick to respond and arranged two meetings with Dr. Yam within the first week of the spring semester. These meetings were open to students, enabling them to voice their questions and concerns regarding the controversial topic.
On January 23, Dr. Yam reassured the community that the Board officially decided not to pursue coeducation in December. “They listened to the ideas, and there are no plans to go forward,” she assures. “The advancement of women is so integral to our mission that it would require a lot more research. There would need to be a community-wide task force and a lot more discussion.”
When asked how students can preserve Notre Dame’s identity as a women’s college, she encouraged the sharing of personal stories and experiences beyond the campus community, as well as involvement in mentorship programs. “Share why you’re here and how positive the experience has been for you,” she urges.
Laine Soriano, a junior biology major and a member of the Concerned Students board, addressed what she observed to be the university’s prioritization of existing coed programs over its Women’s College. Soriano believes that the institution has neglected to fully advertise its dedication to women’s education and wishes that student and faculty achievements were recognized more often.
At the moment, the Board has made no indication to explore the option of coeducation. However, students are always welcome to attend open forums in which they are free to discuss any topic such as the “Coffee and Conversations” session on Wednesday, January 31. As always, Dr. Yam is available to discuss any issues of concern with students.
Administrative transparency and community involvement are also crucial when it comes to handling a topic as sensitive as this one; it demands to be treated with proper consideration and with utmost respect.
Regardless, there is no denying the fact that whatever challenges lie ahead, Notre Dame will respond in ways that stay true to her foundress Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger’s words to “trust and dare.”
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