A necessity for neutrality

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November 9, 2010

12:44 AM

Few policy changes at the College of William and Mary have been met with such tentativeness on the part of the administration as the proposed creation of gender-neutral housing. First advocated by the Student Assembly last fall, the four-step proposal has received both positive feedback and criticism from College administrators over the past few semesters. As it currently stands, their response seems to have been positive — but with the, fairly large, caveat that the political climate is not currently conducive to such plans.

This strikes us as a convenient response, but not an entirely sincere one. There are two assumptions which underlie the administration’s concerns over the “political climate.” First, that this change might draw negative media coverage to the College, and second, that wealthy alumni might retract donations or decide not to donate in response to the policy.

There are some problems with this logic, if it is taken it purely at face value. Undeniably, the possible financial repercussions of any policy must be taken into account. Considering that state funding of the College continues to decrease on a yearly basis, any decision that can be expected to significantly affect private donations should be handled delicately. But the preferences of potential donors should only be part of the discussion, not the overriding concern. There is nothing inherent in the opinions of hypothetical alumni that give them greater weight than those of the current, tuition-paying members of the student body. Neither does it seem certain that press coverage would be immediately negative, or attention grabbing. We would be far from the first university, or even the first Virginia university, to consider such a policy.

However, we remain unconvinced, based on the administration’s reactions, that the College fully intends to actively pursue gender-neutral housing. In reality, the political climate of Virginia is unlikely to be radically different five years from now than it is today; it will continue to be a widely conservative state in which notions liberalizing policies will generally be met with controversy. This does not mean we should allow that climate to dictate the College’s every policy decision.

If the College is actually concerned about the negative public reaction the creation of gender-neutral housing might provoke, there are certainly better ways to gauge that reaction than by mere assumption. Much like the series of campus conversations hosted by Provost Michael R. Halleran — on issues such as undergraduate research and the upcoming discussion on the size of the student body — the College could begin a wider dialogue regarding gender-neutral housing options on campus. Instead of deferring the creation of an explicit timeline for these changes to a later, indeterminate date, College officials could actively solicit students and other community members’ opinions as to what general timeline they would like to see.

If, however, the administration is simply using the imagined threat of lost donations as a convenient excuse to forestall a potentially difficult policy decision, then we find that response unacceptable. We should not allow the administration to postpone the implementation of a policy — one both they and the student body agree to be in the best interest of the College — on so speculative a basis.

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