WASHINGTON — When The Catholic University of America’s fall session begins, living arrangements for freshman students will be different.
To reduce binge drinking and sexual activity, the university’s President, John Garvey, announced in June the university’s plans to re-implement single-sex residence halls.
“I spoke with the board of trustees about it when I was offered the job,” said Garvey. “I said I wanted to do something different because of our own experience of putting five children through college and knowing what was good for them. At a school like Catholic University of America, we’re concerned not only about forming their minds, but their character, and this was the kind of message we wanted to send about appropriate and respectful behavior toward the opposite sex.”
In the June 13 Wall Street Journal op-ed article
where Garvey announced the change, he cited research that demonstrates an increase in binge drinking and sexual activity for students who live in coeducational residence halls.
Research in the May 2002 Journal of Studies on Alcohol shows that students in coed dorms report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-gender housing.
Similar research in the Journal of American College Health found that students in coed housing were more likely than those in single-sex dorms to have had a sexual partner in the last year, and more than twice as likely to have had three or more.
It’s not the first time Catholic University will have had single-sex housing. Prior to 1982, the campus had single-gender residence halls.
Currently, Catholic University has 17 residence halls. Prior to the announcement, six of them were already single-gender. Another five are making the transition, so that when the university reopens in the fall, all entering freshmen will reside in single-sex housing. Garvey said that changes to the remaining residence halls will be implemented the following year, if not sooner.
Garvey’s decision received both praise and criticism, as well as a possible legal challenge.
“President Garvey has set an important example for other Catholic college leaders. We are delighted,” said Patrick Reilly, founder and president of the Manassas, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society, an organization committed to strengthening Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities.
“The culture today is destructive. But Catholic parents want to know: What are Catholic educators doing differently to help students develop morally and spiritually?” said Reilly. “Single-sex dorms are an obvious first step.”
“To look at single-sex residence halls as halting behavior, it may just be halting the location of the behavior rather than halting the behavior,” David Anderson, professor at George Mason University, told National Public Radio.
Elsewhere among Catholic colleges, some have adopted coed housing, while others have retained single-sex residence halls.
Georgetown University, for example, has coed housing, and the college has even raised the question of implementing “gender-blind housing,” a practice becoming more popular at secular universities that allows men and women to room together.
In the late 1960s, when students at Franciscan University of Steubenville petitioned for coed dorms, the president at the time, Franciscan Father Kevin Keelan, TOR, resisted.
“Some are of the opinion that unless we change our beliefs we will not survive as a college,” said Father Keelan. “I am of the opinion that unless we re-consecrate ourselves to the truth of our beliefs we do not deserve to continue as Catholic and Franciscan.”
In 2007, St. Anselm College in New Hampshire implemented one secure female wing within a single-sex male residence hall. The change was made to cope with a larger student body that included more female than male students.
A common argument for coed residence halls is the idea that mixed gender housing has a “civilizing effect” on male students.
Alicia Finn, dean of students at St. Anselm, said that since implementing the change they have seen a decrease in damage to residence halls.
“There has been a 20% drop in hall damage,” said Finn. “Where higher percentages of females are present, we see less damage and wear and tear. Women are a little kinder on things, but we also believe that the presence of women influences the choices and actions of men.”
“At most universities, most of the disciplinary issues concern freshman and sophomores,” admitted Garvey. “One way to moderate the effect of the enthusiasm of students first leaving home is to have residence halls with mixed classes. We may consider that in the future.”
The most unexpected result of the announcement: the actions of George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, who said that he planned to sue Catholic University over its decision.
In a statement, Banzhaf said that the District of Columbia’s anti-discrimination law “prohibits any discrimination based directly or indirectly upon sex unless it is strictly necessary for the entity to remain in business.”
Garvey noted that he has received no legal document, summons or complaint, but merely a letter from Banzhaf notifying him of his intention to sue.
Dale Schowengerdt, legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, said that Banzhaf has little basis for a case.
“A Catholic college has a federally protected right to maintain policies that best reflect its faith and its academic goals,” said Schowengerdt. “Catholic University of America is well within its right to have separate male and female sleeping quarters. No case has ever held to the contrary.”
Schowengerdt added that in order to claim sex discrimination Banzhaf would have to show that CUA’s policy subjects women to less favorable treatment than men, or vice versa.
“Even if professor Banzhaf could get past the first hurdle of showing that a policy that does not disadvantage men or women constitutes sex discrimination, Catholic University of America’s decision is protected by federal law,” said Schowengerdt. “A religious school has the right to make policies that protect its religious mission.”
Added Reilly, “A Catholic campus should offer a Christian environment, where sobriety and purity are expected and assumed of all students. That’s not restrictive — it’s empowering! I suspect that CUA’s students will thrive under this new policy.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.