Should Men and Women Room Together in College?

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Some colleges experiment with “gender-blind” dorms

By Jordan Mazza

You and your best friend are the perfect match. You share countless qualities: you both like to go to bed early, stay organized, listen to Lady Gaga—even eat cold pizza. But one of the few qualities you do not share is gender, and according to your school’s housing policy, this means you cannot share a room either.

A movement to allow college students to choose roommates of either gender is spreading.

This year, though, more than 30 colleges nationwide are launching unprecedented gender-neutral, or gender-blind, housing policies. Such a policy permits upperclassmen to select their own roommates, with no restrictions on gender. Participating schools include Cornell, Stanford, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Michigan and Dartmouth.

Columbia University is one school currently debating gender-neutral housing. Sean Udell is the president of the Columbia College Class of 2011 and leader of the Columbia Genderblind Housing Initiative.

“Our policy is first and foremost for transgender and gender-nonconforming students who don’t feel comfortable with the current housing options,” Udell said.

The Columbia proposal passed almost unanimously in the university’s student senate. But just days before housing selection began in February, Dean of Students Kevin Shollenberger announced the policy would not be considered, due to insufficient student support. In response, the Columbia Genderblind Housing Initiative collected more than 1,000 student signatures for a petition, and hopes to draft a new proposal by September.

“They just don’t want to bother explaining this to incoming freshmen and parents,” Udell said of his university’s decision to reject the policy.

Though gender-blind housing is generally not available to freshmen, who are assigned roommates, some parents of incoming students are wary of the option.

“As a dad, I’d feel a little awkward about it,” said Bill Clarke of Bedford, N.Y., whose daughter is a prospective New York University student. The university currently allows mixed-sex suitemates, and is considering offering gender-blind rooms.

Columbia and NYU may look to the almost 50 colleges nationwide that have implemented some form of genderblind housing, including many in the last year.

Ross Maxwell is the housing services coordinator at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which introduced three gender-neutral rooms in 2009.

“We’ve expanded it quite a bit this year and added a lot more rooms,” Maxwell said. “So far, we haven’t had a whole lot of complaints, but I think it helps that our institution is small and our student body is more liberal.”

Yet the idea of co-ed roommates irks some students and officials at other colleges.

“I would be afraid as a male that if I had conflicts, the female would always win, and say I tried to sexually harass them,” said Mark Cubbage, a junior at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Va. “

According to a recent study by Dr. Brian Willoughby, professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, “co-ed dorms seem to be associated with higher levels of risk-taking” activities like binge drinking.

Dr. Gayatri Gopinath, director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at NYU, said she believes gender-blind housing embodies a logical evolution from earlier movements.

“Gender-blind housing should absolutely be an option,” Gopinath said. “Early feminism was about women’s empowerment, and this is a great progression to transgender empowerment. But we should remember that some people prefer the dynamic of single-sex housing.”

“I’m sure there’s some social value to the traditional policy,” Udell said. “But really it’s about choice. Everyone at this school is an adult, and should be able to make decisions for themselves.”
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Jordan Mazza studies journalism at New York University.

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