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Take SHARE-ing one step further

Four decades ago, Duke looked a little different than it does now. Tailgate was a suit-and-tie gathering before football games, the word “Krzyzewski” was just a random collection of bad Scrabble letters and, oh yeah, every student had a Y chromosome.

A mile and a half away from the gothic sprawl of West Campus, the ladies got their learning at the Women’s College, a separate institution housed on what is now East Campus. But by the end of the 1960s, that separate-but-equal model had butted heads with second-wave feminism and the student movement, and suddenly rigid sex segregation began to look like a pretty old-fashioned idea. So in 1970, the Duke administration offered up a revolutionary plan, giving students of different genders the chance to share the same living space.

That Fall, two years before Duke itself became coeducational, the University launched its first pilot program for coed housing, known as Student Housing for Academic and Residential Experimentation, or SHARE. The program was placed in a building of former faculty apartments on East—now the Wilson Residence Hall—where it could be divided into single-sex suites that shared floors and common spaces.

But despite the progressive nature of that living arrangement, the students of SHARE refused to simply settle for what the administration gave them. In their first year of existence, the group nominated a man for homecoming queen and staged repeated “sleep-ins,” where members crammed their mattresses into the dorm’s common room to protest their inability to choose opposite-sex roommates.

Although these jabs at the administration irked the people at the top, the idea of coed housing took hold, and over the next few years, several more dorms—not to mention the University itself—ditched the single-sex model and went coed.

But that’s where the housing revolution came to a screeching halt. In the 41 years since the establishment of SHARE, Duke’s policy toward gender and housing has remained nearly exactly the same—even Central Campus apartments are still divided by sex.

Earlier this year, however, Campus Council voted to approve a proposal that would begin to change that policy, allowing for limited forms of “gender-neutral” housing—students of different genders sharing apartments (but not bedrooms) on Central and coed hallways (again, not bedrooms) on West. Now, Residence Life and Housing Services stands on the verge of approving the policy, and if all goes as planned, the pilot program will begin next year.

For anyone who thinks adult students should have the freedom to choose the gender of the person they live with, this should come as encouraging news, a credit to both the students and administrators involved. And at a university with a historically poor track record for making space for alternate sexualities, gender-neutral options are a valuable, albeit small, step forward.

In other ways, however, the new policy does little to advance the fractured state of Duke housing. On a campus where West is the undisputed RoomPix Holy Grail, the administration has chosen to keep true gender-neutral housing on Central, where it will remain out of the public eye, discounting its importance for the student body at large. On West, gender-neutral communities and the students who choose them could be a valuable counterweight to the prevailing power of single-sex fraternity life. And what are we worried about exactly, that opposite-sex roommate pairs will challenge the sanctity of same-sex roommates, that it’s a slippery slope and before we know it they’ll start demanding marriage? Wait a second…

Of course, I understand why the current policy doesn’t go further. This is a test run, and the University rightly wants to gauge both student support and community pushback before it tries anything fancy. But that is all the more reason for students who care about the issue to throw themselves behind the program.

The recent past has shown that our administration is receptive to student demands for changes in the housing model. After decades of sororities and independent women alike bemoaning their lack of social and residential group space, last year two student-initiated women’s housing options emerged nearly at once, the Women’s Housing Option on West and the Panhellenic Association section on Central.

Why did that suddenly happen now? It’s simple: Students finally asked for it.

A similar logic holds for gender-neutral housing. If few of us demonstrate interest in this cause, it will continue to advance at approximately the pace of a snail waiting in line at the West Campus Subway. But if we let the administration know how much a lot of us care about this issue, we stand a good chance of forcing them to listen. And after all, we’re just asking for the same thing a group of Duke students demanded 41 years ago. This time, let’s make sure we get it.

Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday.

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