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Separate (but equal?)

Ryan Williams | Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Over this past summer, the Catholic University of America announced that it was abandoning coed student housing and reverting to a model of single-sex residences beginning with the class of 2015. In an editorial piece published in The Wall Street Journal, university President John Garvey argued that the change would help reduce the prevalence of binge drinking among undergraduates, and would also prevent further development of a “hook-up culture” on campus.

Garvey graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 and served as a professor in the Law School from 1994 to 1999, so it is not surprising that he waxes nostalgic for the single-sex dorms and parietal regulations that we are so fond of here.

What is a bit more surprising is that he believes his strategy to reduce binge drinking and the number of casual hook-ups will actually work. As anyone at Notre Dame can attest, these two issues do not magically disappear merely with the presence of single-sex dorms, as they are certainly present here on our own campus.

Moreover, a convincing argument can be made that in this day and age, universities no longer have the right to meddle in the personal lives of their students, and thus must be wary of instituting policies designed to change student behavior.

A more disturbing potential consequence of the switch to gender-segregated housing has been highlighted by George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, who has filed a complaint against Catholic University on the grounds that the new policy violates Washington D.C.’s 1997 Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing and education on the basis of numerous categories, including gender.

Banzhaf argued that separating students into male and female dorms is no more justifiable than placing all Jewish students into one dorm and all Muslims into another, or establishing distinct calculus courses for men and for women. The university countered by noting that the Human Rights Act only forbids a school from conditioning the use of facilities for a discriminatory reason, and because the new housing policy treats both sexes equally, there is no discrimination occurring and thus no violation of the law.

Whatever your position on the validity of these arguments may be, they certainly raise important questions about our own housing situation here at Notre Dame. Like Catholic University, Notre Dame maintains a single-sex housing policy that strives to achieve equality for all students. In practice however, this standard often falls short of its stated goals. To see evidence of this, one merely has to take a walk around Notre Dame on a Friday or Saturday night and observe that all the parties being held on campus are taking place exclusively in male dorms.

The reason for this is the gross disparity between how men and women are treated in their own residence halls. In most male dorms, parties with loud music and alcohol are generally allowed so long as they remain within reasonable levels of control. The University has wisely concluded that college students will party regardless of whether there are rules against it, and so it has determined to try and keep the partying on campus where it can better look after the safety and well-being of its students.

 In female dorms, however, there is no such tolerance for this behavior, and any student attempting to host a party with loud music and free-flowing alcohol would quickly find herself facing consequences far more severe than anything experienced by her male counterparts. It is unclear whether the rectors and resident assistants in female dorms are simply significantly stricter, or rather if there is a concerted effort by the University to limit the partying to male residence halls, thus reducing the number of dorms requiring monitoring on any given night.

Either way, the end result is that the women of Notre Dame are increasingly treated like second-class citizens, a reality that hardly aligns with the mission and ideology of this University. Its time for us as a community to reopen the discussion on single-sex housing and work together to eradicate discrimination at Notre Dame.

Ryan Williams is a junior. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.