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Maryland women’s college to go fully coed starting in fall 2023

Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore currently has a women-only undergraduate program

Students at Notre Dame of Maryland University participate in a sit-in on Sept. 16 in response to the school's decision to admit men. (Aniyah Plumer)

Notre Dame of Maryland University, a private institution in Baltimore, said it will begin admitting male students to its traditional women-only undergraduate program starting in fall 2023, a shift that has surprised some students and faculty members.

Once NDMU makes the shift to coed, there will be 29 colleges in the United States and one in Canada with women-only programs, according to the Women’s College Coalition. Many others have closed or decided to admit men in recent decades, the organization said.

The university is Maryland’s sole women-only undergraduate institution and was the nation’s first Catholic college to award a four-year degree to women, according to the Associated Press. The institution established a weekend college for adult undergraduates open to men in 1975, and coed graduate programs have been offered since 1984.

On Monday, the university’s 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 that there will be some decline there, so we need to continue to innovate, and Notre Dame has had a history of innovation since its founding,” said Marylou Yam, the university’s president.

The school said data show that fewer than 2 percent of female students enroll in private, nonprofit women’s colleges.

The university had about 2,200 students in fall 2021, including about 800 undergraduates, according to federal data.

The shift to coed had been previously discussed through public forums in 2004 and 2007, but the decision was not made until this year.

According to the university, only voting members of the board participated in Monday’s meeting and the work of an enrollment task force studying the issue was confidential.

The board’s faculty representative, Mark Fenster, and student representative, Alycia Hancock — who are nonvoting members — said they were not aware the vote was taking place and learned of the news alongside fellow campus members on Tuesday afternoon.

Fenster said faculty members are upset with the decision-making process. “There was no consulting and no transparency,” he said.

Fenster pointed out that women’s college enrollment has been plummeting for a while. The institution has seen growth in coed graduate programs, including pharmacy, nursing and education, but saw room for expansion on 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 rationale,” Fenster said. “The rationale was to make the program more appealing to females by admitting men. That’s where I think the increase is going to be.”

The university plans to incentivize bringing men to the current women-only campus by promoting its small class sizes, NCAA Division III athletics, and proximity to downtown Baltimore.

Many professors canceled classes on the Baltimore-based college campus after the decision, according to student organizers Hancock and Alexandria Malinowski.

Aniyah Plumer, a sophomore, specifically sought a women’s college. After attending Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia, Plumer valued an education in an all-women environment.

“The shift to a coed environment is saddening,” Plumer said. “To find out that after reaching 125 years as an establishment that educated women we were ‘celebrating’ by allowing males to enroll in the university felt like a betrayal.”

Kamiya Britton, a 2022 graduate, believes the decision to go coed will alter the conversations that take place on campus and cause women to be less comfortable.

“Women come to Notre Dame to be a part of a women’s community that embraces women and their unique qualities,” Britton said.

To address student concerns and questions on the board’s decision, Yam held two student listening sessions on Thursday and Friday. At Thursday’s session, a few students wore blue tape on their mouths and masks to symbolize how they felt their voices were not heard when the decision was made.

Hancock and Malinowski hosted a silent sit-in outside of Yam’s office on Friday to protest the decision.

“It was kind of disgusting, to be quite honest,” Hancock said. “Our voices were not considered.”

Graduates of the university were also given opportunities to speak with Yam after the announcement. But some say they are still outraged that they weren’t given any insight before the decision was finalized.

“President Yam and the Board of Trustees are long known among members of our community for their lack of transparency, but this week’s cloak-and-dagger decision is a new low,” said Caroline Máire O’Donnell, a 2019 graduate.

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 want to join in different programs without losing the mission of empowering women.

“It’s about reorienting and transforming to serve new and different populations in new and different ways,” McGuire said.