College evaluates gender-based student life policies

MIDDLEBURY — Change looks to be on the horizon for Middlebury College’s gendered housing policies.
On Sunday, May 2, as the school year began to wind down, Elizabeth King, Joey Radu and first-year student senator Tony Huynh went before the college’s Student Government Association (SGA) with the Rooming Choice Act, which resolves to push for revisions to the college’s housing policy.
The student-led push for change coincides with the release of two reports by college employees Mary Hurlie and J.J. Boggs, one that evaluates gender exclusivity in student life activities, and one that examines potential difficulties in student life for transgender students.
Dean of the College Gus Jordan commissioned the reports last summer, after a staff member raised a question about Title IX compliance in campus events that used gender-specific language — ones that specified “women only” or “men only.” Jordan said the college had also received inquiries from prospective students about policies regarding transgender student life.
“I decided, ‘let’s look at both issues,’” said Jordan.
This close examination of the college’s gender policies comes at a time when many other schools are also reevaluating their institutional policies toward gender on campus. Hurlie and Boggs consulted with several other New England colleges and universities that have already changed various policies to reflect these evaluations, and they found that many already had models that could serve to guide Middlebury’s policy changes.
The reports specifically cited the University of Vermont and Wesleyan University as leaders in these efforts — both have instituted some form of gender-neutral housing,
In an editorial submitted to the college’s newspaper, the Middlebury Campus, King and Radu also cited Williams, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, and Pomona colleges as similar liberal arts colleges that have already implemented gender neutral housing.
King and Radu decided to take action on the issue when it came time to select their rooms for next year’s housing. In the process, the two first-year students hit a bump in the road: They were applying together to live in a two-room double, separated by a door. After combing through housing policy, they discovered there were no specific policies stipulating that students could not live with a student of another gender. But the unwritten policies still held, and they were still tossed from administrator to administrator, each one unsure of how to deal with their request.
In the end, King and Radu managed to get the single-gender stipulation lifted for all of the two-room doubles in the building they will be living in. But this concession, to them, was not enough.
Radu said the biggest argument the two ran up against was the idea that gender-neutral housing was an invitation to let couples live together.
“But same-gender couples can already room together,” said Radu, who identifies as queer. “People don’t think about that.”
King said that one of the surprises she and Radu have encountered in the past few months is the fact that many don’t realize Middlebury doesn’t already have a gender-neutral housing policy. But once students learn that the policy doesn’t exist yet, she said they are almost always supportive, and the two have also heard support from several professors.
“As soon as they hear we don’t have it, they’re like, ‘Why not? Let’s do this!’” she said.
Radu said he didn’t expect many people to take advantage of a gender-neutral policy, but having the option was important.
Jordan agreed, saying most schools that have implemented such policies haven’t seen any earth-shaking changes.
“Anecdotally, the experience of other colleges that have gone this route is that students would like to have the choice of roommates, even though they end up living with same-sex students,” he said.
And Jordan didn’t expect a great amount of resistance to a change of housing policy — he said he had already brought up the issue at a recent meeting of college trustees, who seemed amenable to the change. The climate on campus is such that he expected people to be very tolerant of the idea.
“It’s becoming a part of our consciousness,” he said. “Gender is not as important as it was a few decades ago.”
He added that many students already live in mixed-gender suites, and that many campus bathrooms are already gender-neutral. As part of a reexamination of gender policy, however, he said that the administration would be working with those in charge of facilities to ensure the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms across campus.
Jordan said he would begin looking at gender equity in housing and facilities this summer, forming a group of faculty and staff to examine an array of possible changes. Then, in the fall, he said he would also bring students into the planning process.
“We’ll talk to students about what they want, and find something that treats everybody fairly and equally,” he said.
At Jordan’s request, Hurlie and Boggs also investigated the specific struggles that transgender students might come across.
“There’s an intricate web of internal forms, transcripts, grade reports, transcripts and ID cards listing a student’s legal name,” said Hurlie. That can be a problem for transgender students — those who identify themselves as the opposite of their biological sex — because they may not want their name to reveal their sex.
So Hurlie and Boggs looked into alternate methods of student documentation — ones that could allow a student to be known by a chosen name instead of by a legal name on student rosters. This would prevent the documentation from revealing a student’s gender.
“Folks who are exploring gender changes tend to be pretty private about that,” said Jordan. “We don’t want to draw attention to it.”
They found that UVM had already implemented a system where a student can choose to be identified in a school’s records by an alternate name.
“I was surprised to see how far some schools have gone on that,” said Hurlie. “We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel.”
Institutional treatment of gender issues is a present issue for many colleges and universities, said Jordan, and he expects to see many making policy changes to enhance institutional gender sensitivity.
“There’s no legislation that requires us to do this,” he said. “But most of us are feeling that it’s a good move.”
Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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