Politics & Policy

Caveat Parens

One family's adventures in gender-neutral housing.

If sharing a bedroom with a student of the opposite sex is not your idea of appropriate college housing for your son or daughter, beware. The college or university to which you have just sent a deposit may have other ideas.

“Poor Maria,” I said to my husband. We were reading the paper at the breakfast table during Christmas week.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“The University of Chicago has sent a letter to parents announcing that they’ll allow men and women to room together next year — and they won’t necessarily be informing parents about their children’s room arrangements.” My friend Maria has a child at the University of Chicago.

“I thought they were a conservative school,” said my husband.

“Evidently not,” I replied.

It never occurred to me that the parents of Chicago students were lucky to be getting that letter.

A few weeks later, I called my daughter at Stanford to see how her course selection had worked out for the winter quarter. “And how’s the new room?” I asked. She had told us over Christmas break that her current dorm — a “co-op,” where the students cook and clean for themselves — required students to change rooms every quarter.

That’s how it began. And, as I explained to my astounded mother-in-law when the dust had settled, it just got worse and worse.

“She’s sharing a room with one other girl and two boys,” I said.

“You mean a suite.”

“No,” I said. “I mean a bedroom.”

My mother-in-law couldn’t believe it.

“But wait,” I said. “It gets worse. She didn’t ask for this room arrangement. She missed the room meeting because she had a friend visiting from the East Coast. She appointed a proxy, and said she wanted a room with no smoking and no sex in the room, but she didn’t ask for a single-sex room.”

“Should she?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, apparently. But she says she didn’t think it was necessary.”

“So she asked to get out, right?”

“Wrong. Her dorm had a seven-hour room meeting, and she doesn’t want to upset everyone’s consensus arrangements. Plus, she says it’s no big deal.”

“So where does she get dressed?”

“That’s the same question I asked,” I said. “She says she gets dressed in the bathroom.”

We told her this arrangement was unacceptable to us. She asked around, she later reported, and she couldn’t find anyone willing to swap with her. So she proposed that she sleep on a futon in one of the two or three all-girl rooms in the dorm, and we accepted that proposal. (When I explained this situation to my very liberal, hip, LA sister, she said, “So she’s paying board money for a closet?”)

“Who are the boys?” my mother-in-law asked. “Does she know them?”

“Well, she thinks she knows them,” I said. “She knows them from the dorm, from this year. Knowing how closely related inappropriate sexual behavior and substance abuse are, I asked her if they drink, and she told me that one of them doesn’t drink, but the other one is a ‘happy drunk.’ She thinks that makes her safe.”

My mother-in-law snorted.

“But wait,” I told her, “it gets worse.”

“What did Stanford have to say about all this?” she asked.

“That’s the worse,” I answered.

I had looked at the Stanford “Parents’ Guide: The Residential System” the day my daughter told me about her room arrangement. It stated clearly that upperclass dorms were almost all co-ed — “some within floors, some floor by floor.” I later pressed my daughter about this statement, and she said that Stanford did, in fact, know about and accept her housing arrangement, which I began to describe as “co-ed within the room.” My husband and I wrote a letter to the president of the university, asking where exactly the Stanford “co-ed within the room” policy might be found (if it existed) and why there was no indication that men and women are permitted to room together in the undergraduate dorms.

I read further and learned about Stanford’s cooperative housing on the Stanford website. The website specified that co-ops are university housing and functionally dorms; however, nowhere did Stanford state that “within the room” co-ed living arrangements were possible in the co-ops.

After some more digging, I found both the “Gender Neutral Housing Policy” and the Stanford housing contract, which all undergraduates must sign in advance of the academic year.

According to the Stanford website, in order to create a more welcoming atmosphere for transgender and homosexual students, a “pilot program” for “gender neutral housing” has been implemented for this academic year.

“The Gender Neutral option will be available in four diverse upperclass undergraduate residences.” They were named; my daughter’s dorm was not one of them.

‐“Students will not be matched with a random opposite gender roommate through this process.” 

Thus Stanford claimed to be implementing, for a specific, narrow purpose, a carefully delineated pilot program. However, my daughter’s situation clearly did not meet the terms of this housing policy.

Stanford’s actions created not one but two problems of institutional ethics.

To begin with, Stanford had failed to inform parents adequately of the change in its housing policy. I do not know when the web page on the “gender neutral” pilot program appeared, but it is not included in the information to which parents are directed. Nor, to my knowledge, was any letter or other communication sent to parents informing them about the “gender neutral” housing.

And if parents actually managed to find out about this policy, Stanford deceived them concerning the extent of “gender neutral” housing, which is not, in fact, limited to the stated terms of the pilot project. If we had been aware of the “gender neutral” pilot project when we agreed to our daughter’s return to Stanford in the fall, we would have been falsely reassured by her assignment to a dorm that is not included in the list of dorms designated for the pilot program.

We wrote to the Stanford housing office several times, and it took a month before we received a definitive response. We were informed that no change in the housing arrangements in our daughter’s dorm would be required by the university, unless an individual student made a complaint and requested an individual change. Evidently Stanford considered itself off the hook if students violated the housing contract and then ran into trouble. And, legally, it is probably right.

But failure to change the housing arrangements is not mere tolerance of a slight oversight. The rooms in her dorm, according to our daughter, while large, do not “allow each gender roommate to have a separate private sleeping space.” No student “commit to the gender neutral rooming option” by choosing to live in this dorm, since it is not part of the pilot program. Our daughter did not have “a specific roommate or roommates in mind prior to the in house draw.” And she was certainly “matched with a random opposite gender roommate.”

By its own terms, Stanford is failing to live up to its housing contract. As parents, Stanford holds us responsible for payment of our daughter’s bill. We, in turn, expected Stanford to enforce the terms of its own housing contract. It should not be acceptable for any group of students to alter the conditions of that contract. Furthermore, it should not be up to individual students to determine whether to protest a housing arrangement which so obviously violates this contract. There would clearly be social difficulties for any student who protested. Thus, it is Stanford that should rectify the situation.

Of course, there is a more significant problem. We, like many parents, do not consider a “gender neutral” housing arrangement morally acceptable. We don’t consider such an arrangement consistent with common sense. We would never have consented to pay for our daughter’s enrollment as a freshman if we had been aware that she might be placed in such a rooming arrangement. As we told the president of the university, if Stanford had informed us that it was allowing such housing, we would have required her either to transfer out or to find another source of funding. Perhaps, since she was a senior, we would have made an agreement with her concerning acceptable off-campus housing. But Stanford never gave us the chance.

I could talk about conspiracy theories, and how the modern university is trying to change society’s norms. I could talk about how the university caters to the “edgy” — whatever that is at the moment. I could talk about how I have new sympathy for my parents’ concerns about rooming arrangements at Yale when I arrived there 30-some years ago. I could talk about mother-guilt, and how I have failed to convey my moral values to my daughter.

My hope, looking forward, is to warn other parents: Stanford and many other colleges and universities do not respect their common-sense values. The university seeks to undermine those values. If parents don’t want “gender neutral” housing for their children, they need to talk with their money, the only voice the university will allow them. Otherwise, parents will have to resign themselves to the risk of paying a heavier cost than they expect for their children’s education.

Stanford and at least 50 other colleges and universities are promoting through their dormitory arrangements an ideology of gender that we personally reject and oppose. There will probably be plenty of families willing to bet their children’s happiness on the prestige of a Stanford degree. We, however, are not among them. We told our daughter that we would not pay for her final quarter — if she wanted to stay at Stanford, she would have to take out a loan. When she protested that we were changing the terms of her attendance at the university, we told her that as far as we were concerned, it was Stanford that had changed the deal. Our morality is not for sale.

– Karin Venable Morin is a graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School. She works as a writer and educator in the Boston area.

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