How “Gender Neutral” Housing Hit Campus

by Alfred Miller ’11 and Raphael Murillo ’12

Get a room! That’s the new option the University is offering to campus lovebirds with next year’s “gender-neutral housing” pilot program. Next year, upperclassmen drawing into Spelman will have the opportunity to live with members of the opposite sex.

Student government president Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10 proudly announced the new program in a campus-wide email on October 14. As with so many policy decisions in the University’s recent past, the announcement of a gender-neutral housing pilot program could at best be called a fait accompli. Indeed, the campus response has been largely muted, although the program met with praise from the LGBT Center and prominent gender-neutral housing advocates such as Emily Rutherford ’12.

On her blog at CampusProgress.com, Rutherford described the new program as a “big step forward for Princeton” and was delighted “it happened with relatively little fanfare.”

“Relatively little fanfare” would have to be considered an understatement. The push to introduce gender-neutral housing to Princeton has from the start been characterized by administrators’ closed doors and general student apathy.

The earliest whispers of gender-neutral housing came in an April 2008 Daily Princetonian editorial, decrying Princeton’s status as the only Ivy League university not actively exploring the policy. The editorial apparently failed to inspire the students at large; nearly a year passed before another student publication discussed the policy.

During this intervening period, the USG formed a gender-neutral housing committee. The committee, comprised of three USG members, met just once on February 1, 2009 for a so-called “brainstorming session,” after which the USG’s Undergraduate Life Committee chair, Arthur Levy ’10 brought the issue directly before the Undergraduate Life Committee at large. Thereafter, the faculty’s Undergraduate Life Committee (ULC), which had previously dismissed gender-neutral housing in 2007, handled all discussions on the matter.

As outlined in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, the faculty ULC considers policies pertaining to the “academic, residential, and social experiences of undergraduates.” It is comprised of six members of the faculty, including Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson and the Dean of Undergraduate students, who regularly meet with members of the USG, including the aforementioned Arthur Levy.

As Levy made clear in an interview with the Tory, the referral of gender-neutral housing to this committee largely marked the end of discussions on the policy’s actual merits; as Levy claims, “the ULC was only involved in crafting the actual policy.” Rutherford confirmed this in a statement to The Daily Princetonian, stating that “there was no one [on the ULC or in the administration] saying this was the wrong thing to do.”

Throughout the process, the ULC sought to maintain a very high degree of secrecy about its deliberations and procedures. All interested parties attempting to contact administrators and ULC members with questions were referred to the ULC Constitution’s policy of confidentiality.

While the ULC was considering gender-neutral housing, the USG served as a gatekeeper for involvement from the student body. As Levy asserted in an interview, the ULC did not need “unsolicited input.” Defending the ULC’s policy of relying primarily on the USG as one that “made a lot of sense,” Levy cited the USG’s nature as an “elected body of representative students.” To the extent that input was welcomed, it was at the USG’s initiative: Levy claimed to “know how to gather relevant ‘input’” and asserted that he had already reached out to the “relevant groups.”

The Tory has learned, however, that a number of seemingly “relevant” campus organizations were never approached by the ULC on the matter of gender-neutral housing. These include the secular Anscombe Society, as well as religious organizations such as Princeton Hindu Satsangam (PHS) and the Jewish groups Chabad and Yavneh House. Indeed, to the Tory’s knowledge, no campus religious groups were consulted in developing the gender-neutral housing policy.

The apparent failure of the ULC to contact these groups points, at the very least, to a disconnect between the ULC and the diverse range of student opinion on campus. At worst, this failure represents a conscious effort to marginalize voices of dissent.

Indeed, in a second interview, Levy admitted that the ULC purposely did not seek input from the Anscombe Society. According to Levy, the ULC already knew what a group such as the Anscombe Society would say regarding gender-neutral housing, and such input was deemed unproductive.

What kind of input, then, was productive in the ULC’s eyes? In an e-mail interview, Vice President Dickerson claimed that “selected administrators and students were consulted during the process,” but declined to elaborate. The Tory has learned, however, that in a departure from regular ULC procedure, Vice President Dickerson brought Emily Rutherford, who is not a USG member, into the process. Explaining Dickerson’s decision, Levy says that Dickerson “knew how much Emily cared about the issue.”

The potential interest and concern of other students and organizations, then, went largely unacknowledged. Even the ULC’s purported reliance on the “elected” USG turns out to have been tenuous at best, given the dependence of the ULC on non-USG member Emily Rutherford. Thus, despite the ULC’s general policy vis-à-vis the USG, the USG in fact played a limited role in the ULC’s deliberations.

This point is essential. Rather than taking the opportunity to gather diverse student concerns, which would seem to be a critical component of any policy-making institution, the administration and the USG stifled campus discourse by immediately entering the implementation phase. The consideration of the actual specifics of the policy, meanwhile, took place with a similar lack of student input.

Arthur Levy continues to maintain that the impetus for gender-neutral housing “was entirely student driven.” In light of the evidence, however, meaningful student involvement is exactly what the process sought to studiously avoid. What could have been a vibrant debate on gender-neutral housing was, in the end, stifled through secrecy and bureaucratic maneuvering.

The gender-neutral housing issue is yet more evidence of a broader culture of opacity in University politics, a culture that the USG has increasingly come to adopt as its own. With the its new “Code of Ethics,” the USG’s internal affairs are now largely “off the record,” hampering the student press’s ability to monitor the USG, and Executive Sessions are strictly confidential.

While the given reasons for this included the promotion of civility and honesty within the USG, this has in turn limited the student body’s ability to communicate and collaborate with the USG, both on controversial policies such as gender-neutral housing and on more mundane matters. With the recent emphasis on confidentiality, the USG is also more vulnerable to behind-the-scenes administrative pressures.

As the USG increasingly looks to protect itself and its members from student interference and observation, it may jeopardize its status as a legitimate body dedicated to the advancement of student interests.

The development of gender-neutral housing policy, then, has exposed a troubling insularity in University politics, and an apparent lack of interest in engaging voices of dissent.

Whatever one’s opinion of gender-neutral housing, this is a cause for deep concern.

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