Chatham University troubled at top, say former staffers
Trustees and officials at Chatham University cited declining enrollment at the women’s college, which once educated Pittsburgh’s daughters of privilege, when they voted in May to admit men to bolster the school.
But faltering finances and high turnover among senior staff suggest other problems have dogged the university.
Internal Revenue Service filings show expenses outstripped revenue in three of the past six years. The school is preparing to borrow $18 million through the bond market to underwrite the beginnings of a $450 million sustainable green campus at Eden Hall Farm in Richland.
A recent national survey by the American Council on Education showed the average tenure among senior administrators at universities nationwide was 6.1 years, but some top positions at Chatham turned over more frequently.
At least one expert said turnover in academia is not unusual, but some former Chatham employees told the Tribune-Review that they left because senior leaders did not seem to value employees, and constant changes disrupted operations.
“Many exceptional educators and scholars, as well as effective administrators, bolt or are sent packing, even though they often have credentials and accomplishments that far exceed their peers at comparable institutions,” said Karen Goldman, a former Chatham professor and administrator.
Programs such as Chatham’s master’s in school counseling, a highly touted physician assistant’s program in Puerto Rico and most recently its master’s in landscape architecture, began with a bang, then quietly disappeared when priorities shifted to other undertakings deemed more likely to bring in students.
Chatham President Esther Barazzone, who has led the school since 1992, declined requests for comment. She is overseeing an academic reorganization prompted by the decision to admit men as undergraduates in 2015, school officials said.
Since 2003, Chatham has had five directors/vice presidents for international affairs.
Its graduate school has had five deans since 2008, including a dean named in a reorganization this month. Its college for continuing and graduate education has had six deans since 2005.
Four people have been vice president for enrollment/admissions since 2008. Five people have been vice president for advancement since 2010, including one named this month.
“That amount of turnover in senior leadership would indicate that there is something going on, something not good,” said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, who described Chatham’s turnover rates as “incredibly unusual.”
“It’s difficult for people within the organization if you’re constantly changing the leadership, because new leaders come around with new ideas,” Heller said.
Bill Campbell, Barazzone’s spokesman, said the turnover appears inflated because the numbers include interim appointments. Chatham’s senior leadership averages six years, he said.
‘Dog eat dog’
Some close to Chatham, such as Goldman, said the turnover has exacted a toll.
“The real tragedy in this situation is that students left to navigate a fragmented and dysfunctional system are poorly served educationally,” said Goldman, who said she watched the exodus for years before leaving in 2010 for a post at the University of Pittsburgh.
“The unfortunate reason why good people leave Chatham so often is that, with very few exceptions, the university’s human assets, especially the faculty and the administrative staff, are disempowered and devalued by senior leadership to the point of being completely disposable,” Goldman said.
Some former staffers described Barazzone, 68, one of Pennsylvania’s longest-serving college presidents, as tough and mercurial.
But Mary Louise Fennell, senior counsel to the Council of Independent Colleges and a search consultant who has worked with Chatham, said Barazzone is “a long-term president who knows what she is doing.”
The school’s turnover is part of a new norm, Fennell said.
“Higher education is that way now. It’s dog eat dog. There are more and more demands with less people to fill them to keep costs down,” she said.
Many of the two dozen former Chatham employees contacted by the Trib said privately that continually shifting priorities, such as ending some programs and replacing them with others, made Chatham a difficult workplace.
Most declined to comment for the record, citing a culture in academia that frowns on speaking out of place.
Struggle for survival
Barazzone began leading Chatham in 1992 as the tiny women’s college, founded shortly after the Civil War, was struggling to survive in a coeducational world.
She started coed online professional and graduate programs that provided revenue to subsidize the women’s college. She obtained university status for the school, initiated a plan to build a sustainable campus 30 miles from its Shadyside base, and boosted enrollment to about 2,200.
Today, about 70 percent of Chatham’s students are in graduate programs, a ratio that is the opposite of most universities.
“We’ve done pretty well innovating our way out of a lot, but it’s tough,” Barazzone said at homecoming weekend in June 2013.
That was the case with the school’s experiment in landscape architecture.
The landscape architecture master’s degree program, begun with great fanfare in 2004, was quietly discontinued last month. School officials said they no longer could recruit students, even as a master’s program opened 150 miles away at Kent State University.
Mary Kostalos, a retired biology professor who was on the Chatham faculty for 36 years, founded the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham and continues to teach. She said she worries about faculty and administrative turnover.
“It’s been an issue, and it bothers me that trustees don’t seem to be concerned. … In many cases, people have lasted from a year to three years. I think the turnover of administrators would be worth trustees looking at a little harder,” Kostalos said.
Trustees did not respond to requests for comment.
Former trustee Lynette Charity, a West Coast anesthesiologist and 1974 Chatham graduate, resigned two years ago after serving for more than a decade, She said she saw indications that the school soon would be forced to admit men and did not want to be part of that decision. Nonetheless, she remains a Chatham supporter and credits Barazzone with saving the school.
Charity said she noticed different faces when she attended quarterly board meetings, but she assumed Chatham had become a place for those looking to move up in academia.
Janet Littrell, dean of Chatham’s College for Continuing and Graduate Education from 2007 to 2010, said Barazzone initially allowed her to live in the farmhouse at Eden Hall and was kind to her. Then frequently changing directives from the president’s office began to trouble her.
After finding herself at odds with Barazzone, she left.
“I personally know several former Chatham administrators — I included — who were very unhappy at Chatham who are at Pitt now and doing quite well,” Littrell said.
Michael Poll, vice president for enrollment at Chatham until 2008, remembered it as a good place to work. He said Barazzone was tough but fair.
“I think she makes the decisions necessary to move that university forward,” said Poll, who now works at Seton Hill University.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].