Ivy peers have embraced gender-neutral housing

The Ivy League tide of gender-neutral housing may prove too powerful for any Ancient Eight school to resist for much longer — and that includes Yale.

Of the eight schools in the Ivy League, only Yale and Princeton currently do not offer some form of gender-neutral housing to undergraduates. But if an ad hoc committee of faculty members and administrators recommends next year that the University create such housing options, Yale may soon join its peers in the Ancient Eight, whether by personal choice or simply by pressure to conform.

Alexander Dean, a senior and chair of Brown University’s student-run Residential Council, said that as more schools continue to add gender-neutral housing, pressure will build on schools like Yale without any such options to add them.

“As gender-neutral housing becomes more widespread, there is going to be increased pressure on everyone to at least consider it, and if they don’t have a good policy, to come up with a reason for why they don’t,” he said.

Since 2003, when the Yalies first lobbied for gender-neutral housing, administrators have resisted pleas to make housing available to suites composed of students of different genders. But after the Council of Masters rejected a student’s proposal for gender-neutral housing in December, Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske convened a committee to examine the issue later that month. The committee will not be empowered to enact any policy changes, Meeske said, and will instead simply draft a recommendation by next spring.

Members of Yale’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have mobilized to lobby administrators for the changes, which they say will make the University more receptive to students who are uncomfortable with the current limited options. In January, the Yale College Council tasked a working group with pushing for the changes.

Similar efforts by students at other Ivy League schools have proven successful. Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania were the first to create gender-neutral options, in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Offering varying degrees of housing choice for their students, Harvard and Cornell universities and Dartmouth College followed suit in 2007. Columbia University also offers gender-neutral housing within suites because of the unique setup of its singles, although a formal resolution for gender-neutral housing has not been approved.

At Brown, which announced less than three weeks ago that it would expand its gender-neutral housing options, administrators enlisted the help of students to decide what changes to make. Dartmouth also included students, along with faculty members and administrators, on a committee exploring gender-neutral housing last year.

Yale’s ad hoc committee, by contrast, does not include any students, although students will be “informally” consulted in the coming weeks, Meeske said. Katrina Landeta ’10, chair of the YCC committee working on gender-neutral housing, said the administration’s committee has not met with the YCC body.

Nevertheless, some students in the LGBT community have been vocal about pushing Yale to offer gender-neutral housing.

“The transgender community is basically ignored as long as Yale has this current housing policy,” said Benjamin Gonzalez ’09, the coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative at Yale.

Yale’s current housing policies could serve as a deterrent to possible transgender applicants, Gonzalez said.

Russell Carey, Brown’s interim vice president for campus life and student services, said the university considered the needs of both current students and possible matriculants when it decided in March, following the recommendation of a committee composed of students, faculty members and administrators, to offer sophomores the option of gender-neutral housing, which previously had been available only to upperclassmen.

“For people of diverse backgrounds to want to go to school here, they have to have a sense that this will be a place that is welcoming and affirming in spirit and in reality,” he said.

Encouraging a comfortable living environment for all students “falls under a larger rubric of what it means to be a diverse community,” Carey added.

The prevalence of gender-neutral housing at other Ivies was a factor in the University’s decision to convene the ad hoc committee, said Meeske, who has represented Yale at Ivy League housing conferences the past two years.

“Gender-neutral was big,” he said of the discussion among different schools’ administrators at the last conference?.

Meeske said the administration will not base its decision simply on what peer schools have done.

But Dean emphasized that the other Ivies are leading the way with positive results. By expanding its gender-neutral housing, he said, Brown was able to eliminate possible conceptions that its policies were heteronormative.

Dartmouth’s gender-neutral housing has also been “very successful” since it was first instated this fall, Dartmouth’s Associate Director for Undergraduate Housing Murray MacDonald said.

The college decided to create gender-neutral housing in part because it incorporated “gender identity or expression” into its nondiscrimination policy in 2006, he said. Yale inserted identical language into its Equal Opportunity Statement four months later, but administrators interviewed did not mention such a change as a reason for considering for gender-neutral housing.

Last year, Dartmouth created a “gender-neutral program floor,” which not only offers gender-neutral rooms, but also gender-themed events with dinners and speakers, MacDonald said. The floor has space for 16 students, he said, and in the fall, 36 students applied to live there.

The program floor, combined with additional gender-neutral suites in one other residence hall, housed 56 of Dartmouth’s roughly 4,000 total students in the fall, MacDonald said.

The University of Pennsylvania has a proportional number of students who take advantage of its gender-neutral housing option. Of Penn’s roughly 10,400 undergraduates, 127 lived in gender-neutral housing during the 2006-’07 school year, said Ron Ozio, Penn’s director of media relations.

In October, Cornell’s student assembly approved a resolution supporting gender-neutral housing. The university plans to offer gender-neutral housing in the fall of 2009, Cornell’s dean of students, Kent Hubbell, said.

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