Though Columbia administrators recently delayed a policy for gender-neutral housing, the University is still far ahead of some of its Ivy League peers.
Two weeks ago, the administration announced that it would not be adopting a student-written proposal that would allow for gender-blind doubles—a surprise to many of the authors who had expected it to pass.
Columbia College Dean of Students Kevin Shollenberger said that the University is considering a pilot program for 2011-2012.
Columbia already has gender-neutral suites and floors, which many institutions consider to be gender-neutral housing.
Administrators and students at Columbia have said that this option would be primarily for LGBT students who would feel more comfortable living with someone of the opposite sex. Despite negative media coverage, the proposal is not meant for couples, they maintain.
Meanwhile, across the Ivy League, college campuses have many different conceptions of what actually constitutes gender-neutral housing. And across the nation, schools have adopted a wide spectrum of policies over the last several years—from strict restrictions to new pilot programs to fully integrated mixed-gender housing.
Columbia is lagging behind the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Stanford University, all of which already allow for some form of gender-blind doubles. All three universities also discourage couples from using the program.
UPenn began its gender-neutral housing program in the 2005-2006 academic year. Students can live with a member of the opposite sex in a room or suite in any building.
“Participants must self-identify and make the request with the willing person who is to be the roommate,” Ron Ozio, director of media relations, said in an email.
He said that in December 2009, there were 122 students—out of an undergraduate student population of roughly 10,400 students—in gender-neutral housing.
“It is a totally voluntary program which has been completely non-controversial,” he said. “Only a tiny fraction of the undergrads have opted to participate.”
Heidy Medina, UPenn ’11, who lived in gender-neutral housing her sophomore year, described the policy as “pretty liberal.”
“You just apply together,” she said. “The only requirement they have is you have to sign a contract.”
She added, “It wasn’t that big of a deal to me, it was just living with a regular friend.”
Brown has allowed gender-neutral double rooms for students who are 18-years or older, after their first two semesters. The pilot program took place 2008-2009 school year for the doubles. They already had gender-neutral suites.
While discouraging couples from using the option, Brown does not ask for students’ reasons for requesting gender-neutral housing. “We do not question the student’s motives for wanting to live in a gender-neutral housing option,” the website said.
Samuel Yambrovich, Brown ’12, participated in the pilot program when he lived in a double with a close female friend. He said that during the pilot program there were about 4-5 gender-neutral doubles. He said now almost all upperclassmen dorms can participate in the program.
“People were very intrigued by us, but we quickly became just another roommate pair,” he added.
Gender-blind rooms, he said, were the “inevitable next step” after having gender-neutral suites and floors.
The next development in the movement for Brown, he said, would be allowing freshmen to participate in the program.
“It’s fun to try something that people haven’t done before,” he added. “You don’t have a ton of points of reference.”
Several universities have adopted partial gender-neutral housing policies, which allow for students of any sex to room in suites, floors, or apartments together.
Dartmouth University adopted a policy in 2007, which includes two housing options—gender-neutral apartments and suites chosen during the room selection process, and a gender-neutral program floor.
“One is kind of gender-neutral apartments and suites, and they’re individual single rooms in an apartment or suite that students can self-select into during the regular room selection process,” Murray MacDonald, associate director of housing at Dartmouth, said.
The gender-neutral program floor, he said, is a special interest community that, “focuses on gender identity and expression, and students can apply to live on that floor.”
MacDonald said that the nondiscrimination policy was changed, “to include gender identity and gender expression,” another factor that helped kick off the initiative.
He said students have been satisfied with the policy. “The gender-neutral floor has been popular.”
He added, though there were a few emails from alumni who were concerned, “that male and female students would be living together,” but he said they were merely concerns over the policy’s intentions.
Testing the water
Like the option Columbia is seriously considering, pilots have been popular at several colleges.
Princeton University announced in October 2009 a gender-neutral housing pilot program for the 2010-2011 school year in their apartment-style residence, Spelman halls.
“Our goal is to provide a variety of housing as well as dining options for our students so that everyone may feel that they have an array of excellent lifestyle choices,” Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson told the Daily Princetonian.
Unlike almost all of its Ivy League peers, Harvard does not have a gender-neutral housing policy, but is willing to allow for certain exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
“Harvard College recognizes that there are circumstances in which it would be appropriate to consider requests for mixed-gender rooming groups, although the College ordinarily requires single-gender living arrangements,” its website states.
Exceptions are only permitted in suites where bedroom locks have been installed, and no opposite-gender roommates are allowed.
The latest developments
Yale University has been the last of the Ivy Leagues to assume a gender-neutral housing policy. On Feb. 21—a few days after Columbia administrators delayed the proposal—Yale announced a gender-neutral suite option for seniors starting next school year. The policy has been considered since 2008. Leah Itagaki, Yale ‘11, said in an email, “There was a lot of disappointment last year when, after nearly being implemented, it was stalled at the last minute.”
For its first year, the policy will be under evaluation. In January 2011, a committee of masters and deans will report their findings to the University.
This policy would institute a similar option to Columbia’s current standing.
Yale’s website said, “Students in intimate relationships are strongly discouraged from entering into a shared suite arrangement.”
According to Jon Wu, the Yale student body president, the administration had not adopted a gender-neutral policy before now because their unique residential college system posed challenges.
He also said that the student body has been antsy to get the policy passed, because the students work on a different time-frame than administrators—echoing similar concerns to the Columbia proponents.
Wu said that, though the council suggested a policy for sophomore, junior, and seniors suites, the administration decided to only implement it for seniors. The council, he said, will work to expand it to sophomores and juniors next year.
But, “I don’t imagine that the option will be used too widely,” he said, adding that the policy was never about popularity. “As it currently stands, not having a form of gender-neutral housing is discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”
Michael Fraade, Yale ’13, said, “I think people for the most part think that Yale is taking what is generally seen as a progressive step forward.”
He added, “I think that people who opt into it will probably have given it a lot of thought before they do it.”