The newest trend on college campuses isn’t a hairstyle or a skirt length. It’s gender-neutral housing — men and women living together in the same campus residence hall rooms. This year, Northwestern University became the 54th school to offer the gender-neutral housing option, and that number is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years.
Not all colleges, however, are ready to jump on the gender-neutral train just yet. Some, such as The Catholic University of America, are actually moving in the opposite direction, returning to or contemplating a return to single-sex housing.
Last fall, Catholic University made the decidedly counter-cultural announcement that beginning in the 2011-12 school year, its two-decade-old policy of coed residence halls would come to an end. That decision has reopened a discussion that many in the world of higher education believed had long since ended, namely: Is there value to single-sex living on college campuses?
Fulfilling students’ wants
Critics of Catholic University’s decision — including a Washington, D.C., area lawyer who filed an unsuccessful complaint against the school, alleging the new policy is “hostile to women” — say “no,” that single-sex housing is a relic of a time when women’s educational and professional opportunities were severely limited by social mores and, as such, should be left in the past.
Other critics of single-sex residence halls assert that coed living offers students practical lessons in relating to members of the opposite sex, is logistically easier for colleges to arrange and respects the fact that college-aged men and women are old enough to make their own decisions about when, how much and in what ways they interact with each other.
It’s those arguments that have persuaded 90 percent of colleges and universities to make the switch to coed housing over the last three decades, including Catholic schools such as Catholic University in the 1980s and The University of Portland, which is run by the Congregation of Holy Cross, in the 1990s.
“Practically speaking, it’s simpler,” said Mike Walsh, residence life director at the University of Portland, “If you only offer single-gender housing, you don’t have as much flexibility in how you configure the halls.
“It also reflects real life,” he added. “In living situations, male and female students learn about each other and how to get along. Plus, it reflects students’ opinions and desires.”
Most college administrators agree that Walsh’s last reason — that it’s what students want — was the primary mover behind the shift to coed housing. And while it may not seem like a good enough reason to many, not giving students what they want can come at a cost, particularly in an era where many private universities struggle to meet student-body quotas.
Nevertheless, Catholic University and a handful of other schools believe that all the arguments in favor of coed residence halls are still not the equal of the arguments in favor of their single-sex counterparts.
At the top of that list for John Garvey, Catholic University president, is the need to restore a sense of appropriate behavior between men and women.
“Beginning in the 1960s, there was a push to eliminate the boundaries, the rules, which governed civil behavior, especially between the sexes,” he said. “Many of those changes were good and welcome.
“But eliminating the boundaries that taught men and women to respect each other’s privacy and personhood, that kept young people from putting themselves in situations where they might do something they shouldn’t — that’s been a very bad idea,” he added.
At least according to several recent studies, the “very bad idea” of coed residence halls has been a leading contributor to the very big problems of binge drinking and one-night stands.
Which is another reason why Catholic has decided to buck current college trends and return to single-sex residence halls.
“Those are both forms of behavior we want to discourage,” Garvey told OSV. “So, if this policy allows us to reduce the rates of binge drinking and hooking up, that will be a positive.”
Fostering learning, growth
Both the University of Notre Dame and Franciscan University of Steubenville, two schools with long-standing single-sex residence hall policies, made similar arguments in favor of single-sex housing.
“It’s been our experience that, developmentally, for both men and women, single-sex housing provides them with a home on campus where they can be themselves,” said Holy Cross Father Thomas Doyle, vice president for student affairs at Notre Dame. “It’s a break from the posturing that goes into relating with members of the opposite sex at that age. In turn, that puts them in a position where they can learn, grow, develop, and experience epiphany.”
“When people argue that the culture is coed, they’re right,” added Franciscan’s vice president for student life, David Schmiesing. “But that’s exactly why single-sex residence halls have value.”
He explained further: “Maleness and femaleness are created by God. They’re an intrinsic part of who we are. But a healthy sense of masculinity and femininity is something that, especially in this culture, needs developing. One of the best ways that’s developed is through same-sex friendships. Men learn how to be men from other men, and women learn how to be women from other women. Single-sex housing creates the space for those relationships to develop.”
Both schools equally dismiss claims that because students live in single-sex residence halls, they’re not learning how to relate well to members of the opposite sex, citing students’ many and varied interactions with one another in the classroom, chapel, dining halls, residence hall living areas and elsewhere on and off campus.
“The reality is that students have tremendous freedom and near constant interaction with members of the opposite sex. We’re simply setting some more particular rules about a 14x14 foot space, which is their bedroom,” said Schmiesing.
Importantly, students at schools with single-sex housing policies generally see the value of those polices as well. Surveys by Notre Dame and Franciscan’s residence life offices show that approximately 60 and 70 percent, respectively, of the institutions’ students support their universities’ housing policies. Also notable is that according to Walsh, at the University of Portland the school’s two all-male residence halls actually have the highest resident return rates.
Perhaps, therefore, it’s not entirely surprising that at Catholic University, although there has been some criticism of the new policy, the majority of feedback from parents and students alike has been positive. Many see it as a step in the right direction toward strengthening the school’s Catholic identity. And while the student government briefly entertained the idea of holding a non-binding student body vote on the change, the proposal never got off the ground due to lack of support from within the student government.
Despite that and despite all the arguments in favor of single-sex residence halls, both Father Doyle and Schmiesing advise any school even contemplating a move like Catholic’s to remember that eliminating coed residence halls isn’t a magic bullet for changing the campus culture.
“There are so many pieces besides gender,” said Father Doyle. “If you change rooming assignments without thinking about all the other ways you develop the students into good and virtuous people, then the positive effects of single-sex housing are harder to catch.”
Visitation policies, added Schmiesing, also have to be taken into account.
He explained, “If male and female students can come and go from each other’s rooms all day, from 8 a.m. to midnight, then you’re going to lose a lot of the benefits that single-sex housing has to offer.”
He also stressed, however, that even visitation policies as traditional as Franciscan’s (men and women are allowed in each other’s bedrooms only on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons with doors open at all times) can only do so much.
“Chastity and temperance are virtues students need to choose,” he said. “If they don’t, no policy is going to give them that virtue. Visitation policies and single-sex housing are the outside boundaries. They’re meant to foster a particular culture, but it’s that culture, not the rules themselves, that ultimately promotes virtue.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.