The university is Maryland’s only all-women undergraduate institution and was the first Catholic college in the country to confer a four-year degree on women, according to the Associated Press. The institution established a weekend college for adult students in 1975, open to men, and coeducational graduate programs have been offered since 1984.
On Monday, the university board of trustees voted unanimously on the coeducational shift after reviewing enrollment trends at women’s colleges and data on high school graduation rates. “We know there’s going to be some decline there, so we have to keep innovating, and Notre Dame has had a history of innovation since its inception,” said University President Marylou Yam.
The school’s data shows that fewer than two percent of female students enroll in private, non-profit women’s colleges.
According to the federal government, the university had about 2,200 students in the fall of 2021, including about 800 undergraduates.
The move to Coed had been discussed on public forums back in 2004 and 2007, but the decision wasn’t made until this year.
According to the university, only voting members of the board attended Monday’s meeting and the work of an enrollment task force dealing with the issue was confidential.
Faculty representative on the board, Mark Fenster, and student representative, Alycia Hancock – who are non-voting members – said they were unaware the vote was taking place and, along with other campus members, learned of the news Tuesday afternoon.
Fenster said faculty was upset with the decision-making process. “There was no advice and no transparency,” he said.
Fenster pointed out that women’s enrollment in colleges has been declining for some time. The institution saw growth in coeducational graduate programs, including pharmacy, nursing, and education, but saw room for expansion at the undergraduate level.
“I don’t think they’re going to get a lot of men on campus, but I don’t think that was the reason,” said Fenster. “The reason was to make the program more attractive to women by allowing men. That’s where I think the surge will be.”
The university plans to bring men to the current women-only campus by touting its small class sizes, NCAA Division III athletics, and proximity to downtown Baltimore.
Many professors canceled classes on the Baltimore college campus after the decision, according to student organizers Hancock and Alexandria Malinowski.
Aniyah Plumer, a sophomore, was specifically looking for a college for women. After attending Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia, Plumer valued an education in an all-female environment.
“Moving into a mixed environment is sad,” Plumer said. “To learn that after 125 years as an institution that educated women, we were ‘celebrating’ by allowing men to enroll in the university felt like a betrayal.”
Kamiya Britton, a 2022 graduate, believes the decision to become a student will transform conversations on campus and make women less comfortable.
“Women come to Notre Dame to be part of a women’s community that embraces women and their unique qualities,” Britton said.
To address students’ concerns and questions about the board’s decision, Yam held two student listening sessions on Thursday and Friday. At Thursday’s session, some students wore blue tape around their mouths and masks to symbolize they felt their voices were not heard when the decision was made.
Hancock and Malinowski held a silent sit-in outside Yam’s office on Friday to protest the decision.
“It was kind of gross, to be honest with you,” Hancock said. “Our votes were not taken into account.”
University graduates were also given the opportunity to speak to Yam after the announcement. However, some say they are still outraged that they were not given insight before the final decision was made.
“President Yam and the Board of Trustees have long been known among members of our fellowship for their lack of transparency, but this week’s cloak-and-dagger decision marks a new low,” said 2019 graduate student Caroline Máire O’Donnell.
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, said the school and other women’s colleges aim to serve historically underserved populations of women and some men who wish to participate in various programs without losing the mission of women’s empowerment.
“It’s about reorientation and transformation to serve new and different populations in new and different ways,” McGuire said.