Weeks after Notre Dame of Maryland University announced that it would admit male undergraduates for the first time, some alumnae and current students are urging the school to reconsider the decision to make Maryland’s only women’s college coed.
The private Catholic university said in a statement earlier this month that the board of trustees unanimously voted to admit men in part because of falling enrollment trends for women’s colleges across the country and the growing educational needs of young men, who are graduating from college at lower rates.
The Sept. 13 announcement surprised alumnae and current students, who said they lacked a chance to share their views before the board voted.
Notre Dame has offered graduate programs and weekend adult undergraduate programs to men for decades, but next fall’s change would alter the regular undergraduate class composition for the first time.
“We’re furious,” said Kristi Halford, who graduated from Notre Dame in 2001 and is a former president of the alumnae executive board. “For me personally, I’m more furious about the process by which they came to the decision and the way they rolled it out than the actual decision itself.”
Halford, a first-generation college graduate who started at Notre Dame as an 18-year-old mother, said she is frustrated that the university did not seek buy-in from alumnae and campus community before making a major change in the history of the 125-year-old school.
This week, Halford sent a letter to the board of trustees, urging them to slow down the process of becoming coed to develop a strategic plan that allows time for changes to campus facilities and university branding.
Susie Breaux McShea, a graduate of the class of 1987, said she was stunned by the announcement and would like to see the university administration invite more feedback from alums and students.
“I would like to see a real openness to discussion and seeing other points of view. If in an academic institution you can’t have open discussion and debate, then where can you?” she said. McShea, who is also a part-time faculty member, said she also wants to see the study that an enrollment task force produced to inform the school’s decision.
Since the announcement, the university has held separate listening sessions for students, faculty and alumnae to answer questions.
A spokeswoman for Notre Dame referred to previous statements on the school’s website, adding that another alumnae listening session was scheduled for Tuesday. An alumni and alumnae reunion planned for this weekend is expected to bring out-of-town graduates to Baltimore.
On Sept. 16, students held a sit-in outside Notre Dame President Marylou Yam’s office. Senior Alex Malinowski, one of the organizers, said that about 40 students cycled in and out of the daylong silent protest.
“A lot of us felt like our voices and our opinions on this were completely disregarded, totally overlooked,” Malinowski said. She said protest co-organizer Alycia Hancock, the nonvoting student representative on the board of trustees, wasn’t informed of the board’s decision until the news became public.
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Students’ demands include a road map for how existing campus facilities will be upgraded to accommodate new male students and a communitywide meeting on the coed shift. Malinowski said that so far, listening sessions have not yielded satisfactory answers to students’ questions.
Halford and McShea both questioned what would attract new applicants to the Baltimore school when neighboring institutions, like Loyola University of Maryland, also offer a Catholic coed education. “There is one women’s institution undergraduate in the state. It’s just too valuable to give up,” McShea said.
Some alumnae and students say that Notre Dame’s small, all-women learning environment was what attracted them to the school in the first place, in some cases because it allowed them to gain confidence and explore new ideas without needing to talk over men.
“It was not my only choice, it was certainly not my cheapest choice,” said Nichole Feltner, class of 2020. Without the women’s college environment, Feltner said she doubts whether Notre Dame will be an attractive option for her own daughter, who is nearing college age.
The idea of adding men to the undergraduate college has come up before. McShea said that in the 1970s, when other women’s colleges became coed, the school held sessions where community members debated the issue. “I’ve heard it described as painful in some ways, but they came out of that and decided to remain a women’s college. They were open to discussing it and looking into the pros and cons,” she said.
In a 2018 letter to the Notre Dame community, Yam wrote that if the university were to add men to the undergraduate program, the decision would come with a “significant amount of dialogue and research.” Becoming coed was one of many proposals that came from a faculty and staff committee convened to explore new revenue sources.
“If the Board were to explore this idea further, such a dialogue would include students, faculty, staff, and the alumnae and alumni community,” Yam wrote in the letter.