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Class Warfare 

Is campus protest a sign of things to come?

By the time she graduated from Chatham University in 2008, Sarah Ford says, she'd learned "how to speak up for what I believe in." After returning to campus May 1, however, she wondered how serious Chatham was about the lesson.

Ford was one of roughly 20 alumnae protesting a Board of Trustees decision to admit male undergraduates, for the first time in the school's 145 years. (Men already attend its graduate programs.) But Ford says that when she returned to the grounds she once called home, "There was a corral put up with ropes and a sign that said ‘free-speech zone.' We were roped into a pen. I don't know why they felt we would behave aggressively."

"It's funny that the place that gave me my voice tried to silence me," she says.

The trustees, meanwhile, were meeting in the Eddy Theater: There, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, they "deliberated behind closed doors ... then left quietly by a side exit blocked by campus security."

"There were students and faculty on a patio nearby, watching us like we were a zoo exhibit," recalls another protester, 2007 grad Christina Griffin. "This was the school that educated us: Shouldn't they expect more from us?"

An April 23 protest had gone without incident, she notes: Demonstrators left campus when security told them to.

"The important thing is that we respect [dissenting alumnae's] right to free speech," says Chatham spokesman Bill Campbell. "We wanted to accommodate it, and we did." The school designated the speech zone, he says, because it didn't know how many demonstrators would come: "We're a small campus, and we have to make sure we manage things as best we can."

Campbell notes that the university held "town hall" meetings about the school's future; Griffin says administrators spoke with demonstrators on April 23, and even sent down "snacks and hot cocoa" — once they left campus.

Still, for a university to be worthy of the name, shouldn't pretty much the entire campus be a "free-speech zone"? It's hard not to recall Pittsburgh's 2009 experience with the G-20 economic summit: There, too, security measures often sent a darker message than the trifling protests they were meant to police. And just as the G-20 took place against a backdrop of global recession, the Chatham debate came at a time when higher ed is running scared.

Chatham President Esther Barazzone has touted several upsides to going co-ed, including a future in which Chatham "educates both men and women about gender equality." But the school is also warning about the threat of what Campbell calls "enrollment megatrends." High-school graduating classes are shrinking, and crushing college-loan debt is scaring students who do graduate. Chatham cites a Bloomberg News report warning "that as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years." Barazzone has noted a Standard & Poor's survey warning that risks are "greater for small private institutions" — especially single-sex schools and religious-affiliated colleges.

Actually, there's danger for any school that can't rely either on government subsidies or big endowments. Alarms are already sounding at Point Park University, which is struggling with lagging student satisfaction and a unionization bid by adjuncts. In an address to faculty this winter, university President Paul Hennigan warned that, "Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the schools that exist today in our market segment will not exist within 10 years."

Worst-case economic scenarios can be used to justify austerity policies that hurt workers, of course. Or to distract attention from mistakes made by global bankers and college administrators alike. Despite the headlines, it's hard to imagine any local college disappearing.

Then again, people once felt that way about the Homestead Works.

Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 because it offered a heartening success story: a post-industrial city whose "eds and meds" sector had supposedly created a recession-proof economy. These are supposedly kinder, gentler employers, who heal our bodies and nourish our minds. Now they may face a storm as well. And when their own institutional prerogatives are at stake, the new bosses can act a lot like the old ones.

That's a painful lesson — one that disgruntled Chatham alumnae may not be the last to learn.

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