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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.