Inside Higher Ed: Sex, booze and dorms

By Allie Grasgreen, for Inside Higher Ed

June 15, 2011

When it comes to gender and life in university halls of residence, the hot topic in recent years has been gender-neutral housing, in which students share not only buildings or floors, but also sleeping quarters and bathrooms. But the president of the Catholic University of America went in the opposite direction when he announced on Monday in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that next year, the institution will begin phasing out its co-educational dormitories.

In making his case, President John Garvey notes the university’s moral obligations and also cites research showing that students who live in single-sex housing arrangements are less likely to engage in risky behaviour such as binge drinking and casual sex. He also writes that these behaviours have negative impacts on mental health and academic performance. The transition will affect incoming classes only, so current Catholic students will not have to move into single-sex housing.

Quoting Aristotle, Garvey says that virtue “makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means”.

“If he is right, then colleges and universities should concern themselves with virtue as well as intellect,” Garvey said. Hence, single-sex housing.

Even though officials from the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International could not recall another institution that has returned from co-ed housing back to single-sex dorms, and 90 per cent of colleges have co-ed dorms, they said that it makes sense that a Roman Catholic University would revert to single-sex housing because such decisions typically reflect an institution’s philosophy. “Introducing a co-ed facility was pretty darned dramatic for that particular campus,” said Jill Eckardt, director of housing at Florida Atlantic University and president of the ACUHOI. “When you think about the Roman Catholic Church, you know, they’re not for premarital sex and hooking up. That’s not part of their doctrine. Not everybody who goes to Catholic is Catholic, but that is part of their mission and vision.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Garvey said that the real reason for the change was moral, not statistical; the research was simply another reason to do it. The announcement also wound up being the culmination of a year of meetings, events and performances exploring intellect, virtue and Catholic identity. “This conversation about life in residence halls and about drinking and sex and so on was all part of that,” he said. “In my thinking about it, it’s got a lot more to do with my wife’s and my being the parents of five children whom we’ve sent to college…and seeing the kind of life” that students lead.

But Garvey did devote a considerable amount of his op-ed to research, including surveys compiled by Loyola Marymount University philosophy professor Christopher Kaczor, which cites a handful of studies linking co-ed housing to risky behaviour. One 2009 study found that students in co-ed housing were more likely to have multiple sexual partners, even when controlling for factors such as gender and religiosity. Kaczor also quoted a 2002 study noting that students in co-ed dorms “incurred more problem consequences related to drinking”, and were more likely to report “heavy episodic drinking”. (Fraternities and sororities – known for heavy drinking and hook-up environments – were not counted as single-sex housing in these studies.)

But Emily Glenn, corporate librarian at the ACUHOI, said that the research linking risky behaviour to co-ed housing is not conclusive. “I don’t think there’s been a great many studies done on that, enough to say it’s going one way or another,” she said. “You would need to have a lot more information to say, ‘This works.’ “

She noted that - given that the vast majority of housing these days is not single-sex - some of those who end up in all-male or all-female dorms are seeking a particular kind of environment, and so what discourages drinking or sex may not be the lack of the opposite sex, but the values that led them there in the first place. The Brigham Young University researchers who wrote the 2009 study - which did not include BYU - acknowledged as much, but maintained that the decisions of students did not play significantly into the results. They noted that since colleges report that students don’t seek single-sex housing, many of those who live there were just placed there and didn’t seek it out. On the other hand, the Brigham Young authors noted the comparatively small sample size of students in single-sex versus co-ed dorms in the cohort they studied – 68 and 442, respectively.

Garvey acknowledged that he cannot know how much the policy will affect student behaviour – but that is not the point. (The decision was all but made before he even encountered the research this spring; the transition to single-sex dorms was a goal of Garvey’s back when he interviewed with Catholic’s Board of Trustees, before becoming president in July.) “It is not a response to a perceived set of problems,” Garvey said. “We didn’t make the decision just on the basis of, ‘Can we reduce these rates by 11 per cent?’ We also thought it was about creating the right environment for healthy relationships between young men and women on this campus,” and sending a message that would promote their “personal growth”.

John McCarthy, a rising junior at Catholic and chair of the campus College Democrats, said he has mixed feelings about the change but supports Garvey’s effort to stay true to the university’s religious identity. “I think he’s working even harder to carve out our spot in the higher education network,” McCarthy said. “There tends to be a natural split on campus between the people who really strongly affiliate with the Catholic identity and the people who think the university really shouldn’t do that…I think it’s going to make students grow in their Catholic identity more.”

That split makes for a smaller “party scene” than other Washington colleges, McCarthy added, and decisions like this one are the reason why. “If you really want to stop binge drinking and casual sex, it’s through teaching of the Catholic identity,” he said. “[Drinking and sex are] a reality of college life to an extent, but I think it’s present to a much lesser degree at CUA than it would be anywhere else.”

Garvey made a particular comment about drinking and gender in his article that has drawn criticism. “I would have thought that young women would have a civilising influence on young men,” he wrote. “Yet the causal arrow seems to run the other way. Young women are trying to keep up — and young men are encouraging them (maybe because it facilitates hooking up).”

Experts on student drinking say that there are issues with alcohol abuse for male and female students, and that there are in fact differences (although the focus hasn’t been on single-sex or co-ed living units). According to the National College Health Assessment, the difference in drinking rates between men and women is complex. It appears that while men consume more alcohol when they drink, women actually drink slightly more often. But male students binge drink significantly more often (bingeing is defined as four drinks for women, or five for men, in one sitting).

Regina Conley, a rising junior at Catholic and editor of its independent student newspaper The Tower, said via email that while she personally supports Garvey’s decision, the student body is pretty evenly split. “Some say that they would never have chosen to come to Catholic if they only offered single-sex dorms. Others, like myself, think it’s a big step toward higher moral and academic standards,” she wrote. “I think that switching to single-sex dorms will not necessarily remove or lessen the opportunity for binge drinking and premarital sex (most students party off-campus), but I think it will have a large impact in working to subtly reinforce the idea that students at Catholic University are expected to uphold a higher standard and that not everything is ‘OK’ just because we are in a college setting.”

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