Opinion | Columns

The cowardly lion

Well Columbia, you wussed out again, and gender neutral housing will not be available for next fall. Students who had been working with administrators were confident that change was imminent, but a few weeks ago Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger and Dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs Theresa Martinez took it off the table for 2010-2011. It was going to be a high point in administrative and student collaboration during our tenure here, but the powers of mediocrity and false caution overcame common sense and student sentiment yet again. We hardly need to reiterate the strong support this measure has amongst students: It was initially proposed by a broad coalition of class councils and student groups, and has received over 900 student signatures in about a week since the administration announced its reversal. Let’s also be clear what we are talking about, a policy which would allow sophomore, junior, and senior Columbians to select roommates based on compatibility, not gender. There are innumerable reasons why students might feel more comfortable with this “open housing” policy, not least of which is the comfort and safety of LGBT students.

So far, the main criticisms of the proposal have come from outside the University, and have focused on the potential for romantic heterosexual couples to share a room (and presumably, a bed. Scandal!). Never mind that the current policy allows for LGBT couples to live together. Here in the real world we know that couples who inexplicably want to share the same tiny Shapiro cave will find a way to do it, and allowing them to do so would make University records more accurate.

To their credit, Deans Shollenberger and Martinez did not directly cite these absurdities in their change of heart announcement. But that doesn’t mean that circulation of these arguments in local media and the intertubes isn’t the motivating fact. They essentially said, “We’re looking into it, but not very hard.” Yes, students in the coming 2010-2011 academic year can look forward to the possibility that there may be a pilot program for open housing at Columbia. Cue the celebration, administrators are “seriously considering” changes.

The frustrating part of this announcement, the reason we’re adding our voices to the chorus which has decried this development, is because it is evidence not of a desire to weigh two competing arguments, but of supreme cowardice. Let’s be honest—there are not serious opponents of gender-blind housing at Columbia. No, this is PR politicking at its most inane. Columbia got a spate of bad press from the New York Post and local news stations, and inexcusable equivocation followed.

Instead of bowing to pressure from the outside, our school should embrace its image as a progressive institution and do moral right by its students. Whose opinion do we care more about, a newspaper whose headlines include “Desperate Hit Wife” and “Driving Miss Crazy,” or our peer institutions like Stanford, Yale, Penn, Dartmouth and Brown, all of which have some variation on an open housing policy? This is an important chance for Columbia to confirm that its reputation for progressivism is well merited, and that students of all gender identities and sexual orientations are cared for in the housing system. This is not an issue that requires extended contemplation and a revisit to first semester Contemporary Civilizations texts. We know that some students feel uncomfortable under current rules, and it is little less than discriminatory to ignore their needs. Students coming to Columbia expect that the administration is willing to take the principled stance on such issues, and not quiver at the slightest sign of response.

The University’s reputation for strong progressive values must be held to a higher standard than filler for glossy admissions packets. When President Bollinger made the University vulnerable to criticism after Iranian President Ahmadinejad was invited to speak, it was for an even less concrete gain for students. Back then, we supported the opportunity to bring our freedom of speech and fine educations to bear on a controversial figure, whose presence was nothing if not a learning experience. The issue of gender neutral housing has much more obvious concrete benefits for students, and yet somehow the same courage to resist media pressures in favor of a greater good is no longer in evidence. If you only had the nerve.

Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and African studies. Shock and Awe runs alternate Mondays.

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