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Rosemont struggles with call to admit men

The Catholic college for women is facing hard times. A panel has recommended a move to coed. Others are divided.

"Being in a single-sex environment opened up a lot of doors to me," says Monica Mocarski, a senior who led the Student Government Association and was coeditor of the campus paper. (Peter Tobia/Inquirer)
"Being in a single-sex environment opened up a lot of doors to me," says Monica Mocarski, a senior who led the Student Government Association and was coeditor of the campus paper. (Peter Tobia/Inquirer)Read more

Finals are over. The school year is done. And another graduating class passed through yesterday at Rosemont College, but a debate rages on: Should the small Catholic all-women's school - the last remaining in the Philadelphia region - begin to enroll men?

Facing a "perilous" financial situation, Rosemont needs to open its doors to men, concluded a broad-based committee at work for 15 months at the Main Line school. The college president and chairman of the trustees are backing the finding.

The trustees are likely to vote on the proposal - which has drawn staunch criticism from nostalgic alumni and current students - at their May 30-31 meeting.

If it is approved, the college will begin accepting men in fall 2009.

Several other small women's Catholic colleges in the area have gone coed in recent years, including Immaculata in Chester County and Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Both report more than doubling their enrollments since the switch.

Nationally, only 52 women's colleges remain, down from nearly 300 in the late 1960s. About a third are Catholic institutions.

Those who support the change at Rosemont say they would grieve the loss of its all-women status but would be hurt even more if the school had to close.

"The most important thing for me is that in 10 years I can drive down Montgomery Avenue and say, 'Rosemont College - that's my alma mater, and it's still there,' " said Kristy Bannon, a graduating senior from Wilkes-Barre.

The numbers are dire. Rosemont's undergraduate enrollment dropped from 419 to 366, or 13 percent, between fall 2005 and last fall. By this spring, it was down to 342.

The school is projecting a $1 million deficit in its current $20 million budget, although that could change before June 30. Its endowment is small: $9.2 million.

The future is even more grim: A survey of 30,000 area high school females found that fewer than 1 percent were interested in an Catholic women's college.

"Young women in today's culture are no longer interested in going to an all-women's college in any significant number," said Paul Mojzes, a Rosemont professor of religious studies since 1970 and a member of the planning committee.

But others say the school should look more closely at other options, such as a partnership with nearby Villanova University, a Catholic coed school. The planning group, which included staff, faculty, students, alumni and trustees, rejected the idea of an outright merger with a larger school such as Villanova, which enrolls about 6,300, fearing that Rosemont would lose its identity.

Another option rejected by the planning committee was selling Rosemont and opening a new campus in Philadelphia or Camden to cater to city students.

Robert Mulvihill, a political-science professor, suggested international recruiting, focusing on South Asia and the Middle East.

"Our reputation for and history of educating women from these two regions suggests that substantial possibilities exist in both cases," said Mulvihill, a 33-year veteran. "Moreover, there are well-placed people poised to help us create such a recruitment program."

There's no guarantee that going coed would help, he said, noting that Rosemont did not survey male high school students to gauge interest.

"We need to return to our roots and discuss whether or not we actually believe in the continuing need for women's colleges," Mulvihill said. "If yes, we should back away now from going coed. The numbers are daunting, but they are not the only factors, and some believe they can be overcome."

Several alumni said a coed conversion would upset them and could cause them to donate less.

"When I become an alum, I most likely won't contribute" if the school goes coed, said Rachel Sanon, 20, of the Bronx, N.Y., who will be a senior in the fall.

Ann Marie Senior, a 1972 graduate, said she would continue to donate but probably not at the same level.

She struggles to see how Rosemont can maintain its mission of developing outstanding women if it were coed.

"I don't think young men want to grow up to be strong women," said Senior, a lawyer from North Wales.

She still proudly wears her school ring, a rose: "How many guys want to wear a rose ring?"

Her daughter, Katherine E. Senior, a 2003 graduate, agreed and recently sent a letter to the board of trustees.

"It's a place for women to be educated," said Katherine Senior, a lawyer from Wayne, who is on the alumni board. "It seems kind of crazy that that won't be available in the future."

Rosemont president Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, a 1970 graduate, has "grieved" the possible loss of the all-women status. But she said she believed Rosemont could maintain its core mission and undergo a renaissance by including men.

"Small medium-size institutions that don't have the huge billions of dollars of endowment of a Harvard or a Yale absolutely must . . . be willing to change," she said.

The planning committee identified other issues that Rosemont must address, such as a perceived "culture of poverty" among low-paid staff and the long-standing suspension of tenure. Hirsh said the committee was recommending salary increases over the next five years and possibly reinstating tenure.

Ron Remick, chairman of the trustees, said he also had come to agree that going coed was the right step.

"I had my eyes fully open and saw the potential of what Rosemont could be," he said.

Monica Mocarski, a graduating senior who was president of the Student Government Association and coeditor of the campus newspaper, said she also had come to favor the coed option, even knowing it would be harder for women to hold as many leadership positions.

"Being in a single-sex environment opened up a lot of doors to me," she said.

Founded in 1921 by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Rosemont offers a liberal-arts education rooted in Christian values. It awards bachelor's degrees in 22 major subjects. In recent years, its student body has become more diverse - 52 percent are minorities, earning it distinction for diversity in U.S. News and World Report.

In the last 25 years, the school has added graduate and professional-studies programs that are coed. But as recently as 2001 the school reaffirmed its commitment to remaining all-women in undergraduate education - a position it maintained even after undergoing a study with Chestnut Hill, which went coed in 2003.

Immaculata and Chestnut Hill officials said going coed had reinvigorated their schools.

"It was one of the wisest decisions we ever made," said Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill. "Our ability to attract students from an ever-widening geographic area would never have occurred if we had remained a women's college."

Chestnut Hill's enrollment has grown 131 percent to 834 students, about 40 percent of them male.

Immaculata, which went coed in 2005, expects to enroll more than 900 students in the fall, up from fewer than 400. About 34 percent are male.

Rosemont projects it would cost $4.6 million over four years to prepare for male students. The school would add more security, parking, restrooms and sports programs.

The school foresees 10 percent to 20 percent male enrollment the first year and 20 percent to 40 percent in five to eight years.

If Rosemont converts, the only remaining women's colleges in the area will be Bryn Mawr, Cedar Crest in Allentown, and the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. All three plan to remain all-women.