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In student housing, is the coed room the wave of the future?

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

By Bill Schackner Post-Gazette Staff Writer

First came the coed dormitory. Next there was the coed floor and even the unisex campus bathroom. But are colleges ready to embrace the ultimate step in gender blending -- the coed room?

At Carnegie Mellon University, student newspaper editors who sensed the beginnings of a trend floated that idea recently on their campus. A front page story questioned whether a school that pushes the boundaries of science shouldn't also be willing to push the boundaries of student housing.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

In recent years, a small group of campuses, including Swarthmore and Haverford colleges in eastern Pennsylvania, have begun offering coed rooming as an option to unmarried students. Administrators say their goal isn't to promote sex but rather to accommodate a limited number of students on their campuses who find it more convenient to live with someone of the opposite sex.

"A couple situations are romantic but most of them are purely friendship," said Maureen Isleib, associate director of residential life at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Make no mistake, this is not a universally accepted concept, even at schools that long ago abandoned the idea of in loco parentis. In campus housing circles, reactions to the idea range from amusement to scorn.

But if nothing else, coed rooming reflects the extent to which the pendulum of campus life has swung.

Shifting societal attitudes, along with the emergence of suites that have individual bedrooms but shared baths, make it easier for men and women to live next door to each other in many halls. At some schools the single-sex dormitory, once the standard, is nearly a relic.

Consider the case of Wahr Hall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The 145-bed building was all-male until the school decided a few years ago that it needed to make a change.

"We were finding that male students just didn't want to live there. We were having to assign people there," said Betsy Joseph, interim assistant vice president for student affairs.

Now, the building's first and second floors are coed by wing and the third floor is for males.

About 95 percent of IUP's 4,000 residential students live in coed housing. Most prefer buildings that are coed by wing, Joseph said.

"It allows more interaction, and it also just has tended to be where students develop relationships, and I'm not talking about dating relationships, but friendships that men and women develop," she said.

"We don't see much dating," Joseph said. "It becomes more like a brother-sister sort of thing. You don't date a brother."

On just about any college campus where coed dorms have been in use for a generation or longer, the arrangement seems so normal that most never give it a thought.

Sitting in the lobby of Litchfield Towers, a coed high-rise at the University of Pittsburgh, freshman Lauren Kantruss, 18, of suburban Philadelphia, said men and women live on every other floor in her high rise, and they come and go freely. No one is checking to see who stays in whose bed.

"You could stay anywhere. They don't know. There's no parents -- nothing," she said.

But that doesn't mean that coed dorms promote sexual relations, Kantruss said. That's more a matter of each person's standards.

"If you're going to be promiscuous, you're going to be promiscuous. If you're not, you're not."

Still, having teen-age men and women sleeping in the same room is a bit too cozy for some.

Kantruss said she'd be comfortable sharing a suite with men, but not a room. Cristine Davis, 18, of Penn Hills, another Pitt freshman, said the whole idea is wrong.

"We're getting a little bit too free in where we let people live," she said. "True, we are adults now, but still I think it leaves the door open to situations that don't need to happen.

"What happens if your guy friend comes home with his friends and they're drunk and something happens, or it's the other way around and the girls come home drunk?" she said. "What are you going to do? They live there."

At Carnegie Mellon, junior Anthony Balducci, 21, said "It would have to be a very mature decision to live together for a year."

He can envision problems.

"The first one that pops to my head is exposing this to your parents," said Balducci, a chemical engineering major and dormitory council president.

And some older alumni, he said, might not take too kindly to the idea their alma mater is sanctioning it.

Even so, Balducci said he could handle the arrangement himself, and might even benefit from it.

"The issues that males and females face on college campuses are very different. It would be eye-opening to see close up how that affects her, and me, as her friend," he said. "I would hope it would change the way I look at people."

Tim Michael, director of housing services at Carnegie Mellon, said he's yet to sense any serious interest among students for coed rooms, though he's received a couple of inquiries from students over the years.

"We would entertain it if students brought us a proposal, much like what we would do with any other idea they might have," he said.

Visitation policies already are liberal enough to allow for overnight guests of the opposite sex, but Michael said having a live-in romance would raise the stakes with any relationship. Students "have nowhere to go if something goes wrong and it sours."

That's one of the reasons some campuses have no interest in the idea.

Jeffrey Docking, vice president for student affairs at Washington & Jefferson College, said he's not naive about the choices students make, but doesn't believe schools should put a seal of approval on it.

"I've never seen one study, not one, that indicates that there are educational benefits of living with the opposite sex when you're between the ages of 18 and 22," said Docking.

But schools that now offer coed rooming say the lack of problems suggests that students are making mature choices.

At Wesleyan, where the practice is several years old, probably no more than 1 percent of the students have opted for the arrangement, Isleib said. Swarthmore and Haverford say the policy has attracted a small percentage of students on their campuses as well.

Only those who express an interest are considered, the schools say. No one is assigned against his wishes to a coed arrangement.

Swarthmore launched its experiment in coed rooming after hearing from gay and lesbian students who felt more comfortable living with someone of the opposite sex. Those students called the school's housing policy at the time "heterosexist," said Myrt Westphal, assistant dean and director of residential life.

"In certain locations men and women can live in the same housing units. This is not an option available to freshmen and it's not an option in buildings containing freshmen," she said.

"It's making legal something that has been practiced," she said.

Typically, the option is available in suites or in lodge-style units where up to five students are assigned to sleep in two large rooms. In an arrangement of, say, three men and two women, the school lets students decide who sleeps in which rooms.

She said students are discouraged from getting involved romantically with others who live near them. "When you break up and you're living in the same hall, you [both] live in the same community " she said. "People take sides."

The Haverford program, launched in 2000, is limited to upperclassmen in groups of three who apply for it by lottery. They reside in two-bedroom apartments with a shared kitchen, living room and bath.

"I don't know who is living in which bedroom," said Robin Doan, director of Haverford's student housing. "Nor do I ask."

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