04/28/2009 05:37 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Co-Ed Rooms on Campus

There is a movement afoot at campuses across the country. Its aim? Empower students to pick their roommates, whatever their gender. Some call it "gender-neutral" housing, others "gender-blind." To some people this is radical. It isn't.

At Vassar, my alma mater, I was a leader in our campus movement to get gender-neutral housing. So when the New York Times picked up an article on that topic in the National ReviewI got interested.

The National Review article by Karin Venable Morin is both tired and a good example of how unthinkingly rigid some people can be when it comes to talking about gender and sexuality in America. To Morin, the policy threatened "moral values." Unfortunately, she didn't bother to enumerate them or to explain why Stanford, on which her article focuses, should show a preference for her morals over someone else's. Personally, my "moral values" recognize the importance of empowering people to live according to their beliefs and preferences, and that is exactly what gender-neutral policies do.

Allowing students to room with whom they will is not an assault on moral values. It just doesn't mandate them. If anything, it is an invitation to those who hold "moral values" pertinent to this topic to actually live up to them without a university acting in loco parentis to enforce them. There is a difference between an institution empowering its students to make good judgments based on their own morals and having an institution impose a defined set of morals without student involvement or agreement. If your morals don't hold up without institutional enforcement, that might mean any number of things about how well you chose your college, how deeply committed you are to those morals, or both.

Roommates of different sexes will still talk about their favorite music, the papers they're writing, and who they're dating. But, by and large, that won't be each other. And that's probably the number one fear of parents and administrators alike. Students are capable of making good decisions and, as this other New York Times article shows, backed up by my own campus experience, most are extremely wary of sharing their living space with a romantic interest while in college. Another important point about this fear is that the potential already exists for gay and lesbian couples to room together, so any university genuinely interested in promoting safety in relationships can't just fall back on segregating the sexes.

The biggest change represented by gender-neutral policies is that they empower students to take gender into account when choosing the living environments that will help them do better in school. This may sound obvious, but for a while gender was assumed to be relevant to all men and all women in the same way. The falsehood of that perception is now crumbling. For gay and lesbian students, having the flexibility to find a good roommate match is now in reach. For everyone, the likelihood of finding a compatible platonic roommate increases. Gender-neutral policies simply recognize that gender plays new and complicated roles in the lives of students.

I want all the parents out there to know: no, this is not a policy out to get your children. No, this is not an assault on your values. No, this is not a wishy-washy, liberal, PC-fest run amok. Even in places that have few or no restrictions on which halls or dormitories are gender-neutral, people choose overwhelmingly to live in same-sex room pairs. Gender-neutral housing policies are affirmative declarations of faith in students' ability to make informed decisions about what living environments facilitate their academic and personal growth. While gay students sometimes want the option to not live with people of the same sex, others just want to live with a platonic friend of a different sex. If students have hangups about that, then they won't choose a roommate of a different sex.

So long as no one is ever forced into a co-ed living arrangement and so long as those for whom a same-sex arrangement really doesn't work get accomodated, gender-neutral policies are preferable to gender-segregating ones. If you are a parent who has doubts about your college-age son or daughter's ability to make good decisions, well, s/he has bigger problems than who to pick as a roommate.