By Toni Alimi ’13
In October of 2009, Princeton became the seventh Ivy League university to offer a gender-neutral housing option to its undergraduate students. Former USG President, Connor Diemand-Yauman’s, announcement on October 14, 2009 presented the administration’s decision to make suites in Spelman Hall gender-neutral as a “pilot program” for the 2010-2011 academic year. According to Diemand-Yauman, after the 2010-2011 school year, the pilot program would be evaluated after a year and would then be appropriately expanded, maintained, or perhaps even rescinded. Nevertheless, as is often the case with administrative efforts (and not just at Princeton University), not everything seems to have gone according to plan. As we near the end of this school term, the administration has not yet been able to make any judgment on the success of gender-neutral housing.
The program was introduced largely with LGBT students in mind. Its supporters suggested that members of the LGBT community for one reason or another might often be more comfortable rooming with members of the opposite sex. Its advocates also praised the fact that the initiative would serve to increase the number of housing options Princeton students would have. Furthermore, advocates argued that the program could be scaled back after the pilot year if it proved to be detrimental to student life.
The most common criticisms of gender-neutral housing were voiced in an October 2009 Daily Princetonian Editorial Board Dissent: that “students from the opposite sex living together en masse might create a host of new problems within the rooms themselves (relationship breakups, for example).” Another criticism was that while gender-neutral housing would be implemented to make the lives of transgendered students specifically more comfortable, it would do so it would simply “be exchanging one currently uncomfortable minority (transgender students) for another, probably much larger minority (those who are uncomfortable with GNH for any reason).” To solve this problem, critics of gender-neutral housing proposed priority room draw for LGBT students or designating certain hallways rather than all of Spelman as gender-neutral. However, defenders of gender-neutral housing maintained that Princeton students would have to exercise prudence in choosing rooms and that the University should not adopt a paternalistic attitude towards its students when it came to housing situations.
And so gender-neutral housing came to Princeton. In September of 2010, at the beginning of what was supposed to be a pilot year for gender-neutral housing, the Tory ran an article outlining the manner in which gender-neutral housing came to campus. The article found the entire process to be characterized by administrative secrecy, which was enabled by the general campus population’s apparent apathy towards the issue. In the last year, not much seems to have changed.
To get to the heart of the issue, I’d like to briefly examine the first public statement to the University community that gender-neutral housing had been officially approved. According to Diemand-Yauman’s October Undergraduate Student Government announcement, the administration originally intended to give gender-neutral housing a test-run “by comparing Spelman’s gender neutral housing policy with the same-gender roommate system in other buildings, and broadly soliciting student input
about the strengths and weaknesses of the system.” Publishing such a report would have gone a long way toward allaying or confirming the qualms of gender-neutral housing’s detractors and vindicating or undermining the arguments of its supporters. Either way, it would have helped the administration add legitimacy to whatever decision it would eventually make. Perhaps as significantly, it would have assisted other schools considering adopting a gender-neutral housing system gauge the consequences of such a program.
Nevertheless, as of April 2011, no such report has been published, and it is difficult to know whether or not anyone has even started to write it. Manager of Undergraduate Housing Angela Hodgeman informed me by email the University would not be able to evaluate the 2010-2011 pilot program in Spelman “since Room Draw happens early in the year.” However, for 2010-2011 to have truly been a pilot program, the Housing Office would have needed to make its evaluation before room draw for the 2011-2012 academic year. The administration ought to have known better than anyone when undergraduate room draw would occur and, theoretically, should have made a conscious effort to have some sort of program evaluation in the works long before the end of March or the beginning of April. As such, Ms. Hodgeman’s claim does not seem to truly capture what has gone on behind the scenes.
I attempted to contact Ms. Hodgeman with follow-up questions concerning why the administration had not conducted its report, whether any evaluation had in fact been begun, if there had been any student accounts given, and whether the University was ultimately planning on making its report student accessible. Unfortunately, Ms. Hodgeman has not yet been available to respond.
Nevertheless, even without the administration’s official response, there are two reasonable explanations as to why things have played out in this manner. Operating under the assumption that the University had a specific goal in mind when it suggested a gender-neutral pilot program, either the University did in fact intend to have a report published and available before Room Draw for the 2011-2012 academic year, or it never intended to have one published.
If the former is the case, then once again, the administration has fallen victim to what seems to be a chronic inertia and displayed a frightening lack of internal accountability. If the Housing department did, in fact, intend to draft, analyze, and publish a report, the Housing department simply has no excuse for not having done so. Higher-ups in the administration are equally culpable; someone should have been constantly keeping the housing department accountable.
If, however, the latter is the case and no analysis of a 2010-2011 pilot program was in fact intended, the implications are far more sinister. Not only would it seem that suggesting a 1 year pilot program was simply a hollow concession to those who opposed gender-neutral housing in the first place, but if this is the case, the University has been purposefully misleading its students – present and future – and alumni. Sadly, this is highly reminiscent of the administrative secrecy evident in many aspects of University life.
The University has not made any attempt at transparency concerning its policy on gender-neutral housing. There have been no news updates concerning gender-neutral housing in “News at Princeton,” or from the USG. If gender-neutral housing were in fact completely benign, one would think some sort of update would have been given by either body since the 2009-2010 school year. This, coupled with a widespread culture of campus apathy, has let the administration off the hook. Even the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which discussed gender-neutral at long length during its infancy at Princeton) has seemingly long forgotten the issue.
It is not so far-fetched to suggest that the administration might be able to subtly usher in gender-neutral housing by riding twin waves of purposeful secrecy and popular apathy. While Ms. Hodgeman insists that a decision on the fate of gender-neutral housing will be made “after the end of this academic year” and that it will decide “whether to expand the program for the 2012-13 academic year,” if Housing is unable to provide any support for their decision, then the legitimacy of the decision made is undermined. Perhaps more cynically, it seems possible that the University may continue to postpone conducting a report until the point when all is forgotten, and gender-neutral housing is simply of unquestioned stasis on campus.
Toni Alimi is a sophomore from Houston, TX. He intends to major in chemical engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.