This isn't Ally McBeal. It's the college dorm.
Thirty years after a co-ed 'revolution,' togetherness rules. But its broad infusion into campus life prompts questions about where to draw the line.
NEW LONDON, CONN. — Talk to college grads of 30 years ago, and men remember women being bused to campuses on weekends in order to see them. Professors chaperoned formal frat parties. Doors stood at least a foot ajar during dorm visiting hours and a residential guard kept careful watch.
To many students today, such practices may seem quaint. Mixed-gender classrooms and living environments are as regular a feature of college life as football and finals.
But togetherness has gone well beyond class discussions that offer both male and female points of view. Three decades after what many of their parents viewed as a revolution, coeducation has infused virtually every aspect of college life - from eating and studying together to showering and shaving side by side.
Students say co-ed living has led to a familylike atmophere, fostering a "brotherly, sisterly" bond between men and women. But others say the far reach of co-ed living raises concerns.
Those may be as simple as the added tensions for students unaccustomed, say, to co-ed bathrooms. Others point to possible legal issues as required co-ed living arrangements butt up against the beliefs of an increasingly diverse group of students. And this year, a big topic on several campuses is whether to provide co-ed, apartment-style suites.
"I certainly wouldn't want to go back to the way things were," says Karl Scheibe, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., since 1963, five years before it went co-ed. But, he notes, "the consequences of more freedom include a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty about what to do."
That sentiment is apparent in periodic if frequently minor challenges to a widely accepted system, one favored by many prospective students. Some parents, for instance, don't want their children living on campus because of co-ed housing (see story, right). Certain colleges are seeing an increase in requests for single-sex dorms. And at Yale University in 1997, some Orthodox Jews sued over a mandatory co-ed dorm policy.
With support for coeducation running deep among a range of constituencies, no one is suggesting a return to the rigid structures of the 1950s. Dorm life plays an integral role in college, educators say, positively shaping how men and women interact.
"Coeducation has improved the world, and it's improved things spectacularly here," says Claire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College in New London, which was all women until 1969. "There is a wonderful diversity of point of view that people bring to everything we do."
Indeed, most students credit mixed-gender learning for bringing greater equity to education and giving them better preparation for the "real world." For many, its reflection in their living arrangements is not a concern.
"I don't see why you have to separate the two sexes. [Co-ed] is great," says Rick Gabriele, a first-year student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "You get used to being around the opposite sex. I walk into the bathroom, and there'll be a girl brushing her teeth, and then I'll jump in the shower." But he adds that dating a girl on his floor would be "odd."
Haverford took co-ed living a step further this fall when it first allowed men and women to share apartment-style dorm suites. Mixed-gendered groups of three students can share two-bedroom units, which house about a third of the school's 1,100 students. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Wesleyan University recently implemented similar policies, while Tufts University in Medford, Mass., rejected such proposals for this year.
Haverford educators concede that boyfriend and girlfriend pairs have taken advantage of the option. But they say the aim is to replicate a family situation, where students share a home with separate bedrooms. The change was made partly in response to gay students, some of whom say single-sex housing policies make them uncomfortable and are discriminatory.
At Connecticut College, the scene is similar to Haverford: Men and women share class notes, bathrooms, and plenty of late-night pizzas.
"There's a sense of community here. I feel very safe," says Sara Jamieson, a senior majoring in economics, as she sits in her room in a former hotel.
Ms. Jamieson and several other students agree that mixed dorms encourage friendships rather than dating. What they don't do, the students argue firmly, is promote promiscuity.
"I have just as many guy friends as girl friends," she says. "I can't imagine it any other way. If you give people more freedom, ultimately they become more responsible."
In fact, the students say mixing men and women makes an environment more balanced: "Girls who spend too much time together get catty and gossipy," Jamieson says.
"And guys tend to break stuff when we get together," chimes in Peter Kroll, a senior. "If men are around men all day, they can easily become pigs."
But Mr. Kroll finds co-ed living a little immodest at times, especially in the bathrooms.
"I would like to separate boys' and girls' bathrooms," he says with an uneasy look. He and some others believe the single-sex version provides more privacy. And there's a social element in co-ed bathrooms that some students say belongs in a different venue. "The bathroom is a place where you make yourself presentable," Kroll says.
Jamieson, on the other hand, isn't bothered by men sudsing up nearby and has especially enjoyed what she calls "shower chat," where every morning students file into separate showers to talk and sing songs like "Manic Monday," by The Bangles.
Such arrangements don't mean there aren't rules. In Connecticut College dorms, as in most nationwide, students are warned against underage drinking and taught honor codes that emphasize respect. Dorm dwellers also establish bathroom etiquette, including being well-covered as you enter and leave.
There are still institutions, of course, that cater to the view that separation is best (see story, left). Mississippi, for instance, allows no state schools to mix the sexes in dorms.
And at some private schools like Hillsdale College in Michigan, single-sex dorms still resonate with students. "I would never consider going to a two-sex living environment," says Tara Thelen, a senior. "It would bother my morals and standards. It would disrupt my studying and social life. Most people here appreciate the privacy."
Less controversial is coeducation's effect on the classroom and campus in general. Teachers say integrating men and women has livened up discussions and broadened curriculum to include more women's contributions.
In class, professors say that while the desire to be politically correct can at times eclipse expression, for the most part the combination of women and men completes the picture.
English Prof. George Willauer saw Connecticut College transform as men filtered onto campus. Before, he says, it was known as "a suitcase college." Women would leave on weekends for Amherst, Yale, or New York for dates. Now, weekends are a time for sports, theater, and parties, and men and women share leadership roles, he says.
"There was a great deal of artificiality in relations between men and women in the '50s and '60s," Wesleyan's Professor Scheibe says.
He and other professors recall 1968 as a pivotal year for US culture. The feminist movement was in full swing. To protest gender segregation, for example, women at Barnard College in New York held a "sleep-in" in 1969 at brother-school Columbia University's male dorms.
In 1972, Title IX mandated equality at schools that received federal funds, covering everything from admissions to athletics. After the Ivy Leagues opened to women, other schools quickly followed.
The change put pressure on women's colleges. Formerly all-women's Goucher College in Baltimore, for example, voted to enroll men in 1986.
The result, some say, was not entirely positive. Richard Pringle, a psychology professor, says women started to drop out of class discussions when the culture of romance hit. With men and a stronger emphasis on sports came "fraternity-ish" practices, too, he says.
"Drinking has taken on a new charge. Vandalism was nonexistent before, but now vandalism is somewhat of a problem. Sexual assaults and date rape were never a problem."
Women continue to face a chilly climate at co-ed institutions because of these same factors, some say. "There's been progress, without a doubt, but research shows that men dominate in classes and get more faculty attention," says Leslie Miller-Bernal, author of "Separate by Degree: Women Students' Experiences in Single-Sex and Coeducational Colleges."
Some schools have banned frats or made them co-ed for a "civilizing" effect. When Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., did so in 1995 to equalize housing and improve what many perceived as a male-dominated social scene, it was able to attract better academically qualified women, says dean of faculty David Paris.
Yet as coeducation gets pushed to the limit, some find it's not all it's cracked up to be.
"It's embarrassing at times," says Connecticut College student Mary Rafter, a sophomore from Maine. As a freshman she shared a room with two women on a floor with a bunch of men who were hockey players. "Your hair's a mess and guys are shaving and putting on cologne. What you sleep in is not what you want people to see you in."
Legal experts suggest that extreme living situations may even stir the very problems that schools are trying to solve with approaches like making fraternities co-ed. There could be more lawsuits in the future because of date rape or sexual harassment, for instance.
The equation is also complicated as campuses draw students with a wider range of religious and cultural backgrounds. In the Yale case, Orthodox Jewish students saw co-ed dorm life as too immodest for their religious standards. They sued over a policy that wouldn't allow them to live off-campus instead of in required dorms. The suit was dismissed. But it hinted at a level of sensitivity that may lead to a retreat from liberal policies.
"We are seeing more campuses where women and men want their own dorms," says Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College. But he predicts universities will swing between integration and separation.
The future will also bring a more nuanced approach to fulfilling equity in education, says Hamilton's Dean Paris. "Coeducation is evolving from the macro questions of access and equity to more micro questions like classroom climate, assessing learning styles of men and women."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society