A housing evolution
Changing values have altered the face of Brandeis' campus housing
Meet Babushka Brown '57. A fictionalized character used in the University's Student Handbook from 1953 to 1954, Babushka was the perennial first-year who "herald[ed] the honor system" and helped the administration impart the school's parietal rules to her peers, at the same time reminding "those upperclassmen suffering from 'convenient amnesia'" how to behave.In her 18 years before Brandeis, Babushka had developed a "staggering amount of 'savoir faire,'" according to the Handbook description. Her philosophical attitude, offset by a pair of Levi's and lipstick, was reflected in her allergy to rules and regulations; she was "a firm believer in the sacred natural rights of the individual." But Babushka complied with the "lenient laws of Brandeis U."
It was the age of in loco parentis, when the school-mandated curfews required female students to sign in and out with their resident counselors and prohibited men-including fathers, brothers and uncles-from entering women's dormitories at all times. A Human Relations major, Babushka found "dormitory life an excellent laboratory experiment in democratic living."
Today, students are huddling to discuss their housing options for next year, conspiring in the plentiful crevices of the modern 235-acre campus. Housing in 2011 is a far cry from the days of Babushka. New buildings have sprouted, including the Village and Ziv Quad; and some no longer stand, including the Cottages, a series of Victorian houses that lined the lower campus up until the 1980s. The first picks for housing this year will begin on March 15, and those with lucky numbers will have the privilege of choosing between a suite or a hall, a double or a single, living with the same gender or with a mix.
The options to overlook gender as a factor in choosing with whom to live-even in a double-occupancy room-became a reality in fall 2009 when Brandeis offered gender-neutral housing for the first time in its history. For the students who spent years advocating its necessity to the Department of Community Living, the option could not have come soon enough. But in Babushka's world, this freedom to choose was unfathomable.
The University was not alone in its separation of men and women in 1948. The majority of America's private Eastern institutions at the time, including all of the Ivy League Universities except Cornell, were for men only. The machismo identities of Harvard University and Columbia University had the affiliation of sister schools Radcliffe College and Barnard College. According to the Crimson archive, Harvard did not accept female undergraduate students until 1977; Columbia, the last Ivy League school to become co-educational, did not officially convert until 1983.
According to a 2008 america.gov article by Jeffrey Thomas, the number of single-sex colleges for women in the country dropped from over 300 in 1960 to fewer than 60 at the time of publication. He wrote, "Of the 250 all-male colleges in the mid-1960s, only four remain entirely male today."
Prof. Jacob Cohen (AMST), who teaches the course AMST 163b "The Sixties: Continuity and Change in American Culture," attributes the progression to co-ed universities, and at Brandeis to coeducational dorms, to the "sexual revolution" and "the tremendous influence of youth culture in the 60s."
"Birth control became possible, and the danger of unwanted pregnancy was dramatically reduced," he explains. Cohen recalls how, during the "Sanctuary" movement at Brandeis in which students protested Vietnam, "the most radical students tore down gendered bathroom signs and stall walls because they felt it was an artificial separation between the sexes."
At the time, it was called the "whorehouse on the hill" by some Waltham locals at the time, with liberal college students living in their traditional, working-class neighborhoods.
The records in the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections are somewhat murky on how the University progressed to co-ed dormitories, though equality between men and women soon came from the elimination of the price differences in room rates. In 1951, men were charged fees ranging from $175 to $285 while women paid between $150 and $290. Today, the prices differ on the basis of how many people live with you and where you live.
In 1963, Brandeis founder and then-President Abraham Sachar proposed a new plan to loosen restrictions on single-sex housing. East Quad, then the first suite-style living option on campus, was developed that year with student input on the design. Several parents fumed at the thought of sons and daughters living in closer quarters, and so began the student outcry to dismantle the rules of Brandeis' beginnings.
To assuage parents, the presumed payers of tuition, Sachar instated an open-door policy on March 2, 1964 requiring men and women to leave their dorm room doors ajar during co-ed visiting hours. "All dorms may, upon the approval of the majority of their residents and in consultation with the residence staff and the residence office establish their own policy on local closing hours and coeducational visiting hours," according to the 1970 to 1972 Student Handbook.
In a letter to parents regarding the injustice of the open-door policy, Student Council President Steven Mora '65 wrote, "Let me just say that Brandeis students who are constantly told of their scholastic excellence and asked to deal with the most difficult problems of science and the liberal arts find it difficult to understand that they are incapable of making decisions about the problems that confront them in their personal lives."
As Brandeis students joined the nation in picketing Senator McCarthy's communist witch-hunt, the laws of Jim Crow and, not to mention, the draft of the Vietnam War, they voiced similar concerns about the authority of the University to determine what students would do behind closed doors, ultimately leading to the removal of the open-door policy.
Curfews were debunked around the time of the open-door policy, according to the University Archives. The 1969 to 1970 Student Handbook was the last mention of these types of rules at Brandeis; it was up until this year that women needed to get permission to leave campus on weekends. No one was allowed to exit the dormitory after 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends and had to remain in the living quarters until 7 a.m. If the clocks in the dorms were not synchronized, Babushka warns her peers, they "better find out which time is official."
To further Brandeis' progression, the University created Shapiro Residence Hall in 1970 to house 72 women and 72 men, the first co-ed dormitory on campus. Students lived in rooms with same-sex peers but now could share a hall with the opposite gender.
The parental concerns regarding mixed-gender floors then mirror those regarding mixed-gender rooms today. Some parents worry that their children who opt to live with the opposite gender, "are going to fall in love and everything's going to fall apart." Kelsey Strouse '13 recounts that particular reaction of her mom to her living in a double-occupancy room with a close male friend. Strouse notes that her mom has since grown used to the idea.
But members of Triskelion, Brandeis' primary LGBTQ student group, fought to overturn the parents' and administration's assumptions that sexual attraction was inherently linked to gender.
Zachary Spence '11 was involved in the gender-neutral housing negotiations with the Department of Community Living in 2008 as a self-described "impassioned" member of Trisk and is now the Chairperson of TransBrandeis, the on-campus group for transgender students. He recalls in an interview with the Justice the "difficult and long process" to get to today's gender-neutral options.
When Spence was a first-year, the DCL staff member "helping [Trisk]"-he emphasizes the quotation marks with his fingers-create a plan for gender-neutral housing stressed the importance of keeping the initiative "a secret until it's ready to be unveiled, revealed." Spence sighs, pressing his hand to his bang-covered brow; "Every year, gender-neutral housing just didn't happen," he says.
Spence feels that DCL's primary hesitation in its negotiations with Trisk, that gender-neutral accommodations would simply lead to men and women using the option to tumble in bed, is an "extremely heteronormative" assumption. "We're not going to have an orgy in our rooms."
Spence understands firsthand the importance of gender-neutral accommodations. He began his Brandeis career registered as female. "When I was applying to Brandeis, I didn't know the first thing about gender." He remembers sitting down with his first-year roommate, admitting to her, "I really wish that I was a boy." Her response of "Well, why don't you be one?" surprised Spence and gave him the support necessary to begin to transition.
"Sometimes people confuse me for a woman, and I'll have a day where people have referred to me with all of the wrong pronouns," he laments, plopping his arms on the rests of his loveseat.
Despite the adversity, Spence's petite build radiates the sturdiness and self-assuredness of a humble football quarterback. At our interview, he sports a charcoal v-neck sweater; black jeans; and white, fur-trimmed snow boots. The pensive, nonabrasive nature of his voice speaks loudly to personal experience.
On the difficult role of being a public advocate for an issue as personal as gender, he secures his black-rimmed spectacles to the bridge of his nose and pauses to think before speaking.
Spence has not needed to use gender-neutral housing at Brandeis because, when he decided to room with his female-bodied first-year roommate again for sophomore year, he was still registered with DCL as female. Now in his senior year, Spence lives in a single in a Ridgewood suite, so he once again does not have to worry about defining his gender for DCL.
But true to the word of DCL, Spence admits, gender-neutral housing began his junior year, just 1 year after he became a part of the initiative. He praises DCL for its effort to explain the initiative to the campus and parent community. "They fielded all of the concerns they were getting from parents and then created a webpage where they posted [the concerns] and addressed them. They were really good at explaining what needed to be said."
As Brandeis announced its new gender-blind options for fall 2009, Spence spent the year studying abroad in Japan and clashed with the administration of his program over his transgender identity. On his program's field trip to an isle inn, Spence was assigned to a six-occupant women's bedroom. When he approached the administrative assistant about the rooming mistake, "She looked at me and said 'You look like a woman so you are going to be in a woman's room.' I was like 'hmm,'" Spence reenacts, shaking his head at the "unbelievably rude" statement. The people on his program rallied together and eventually got a gender-neutral room, but this experience gave Spence a newfound appreciation for the progress that had been made thus far at Brandeis.
"In an ideal society, there is a lot that can be done. One of the things that I would like to happen that I feel won't happen, at least not anytime soon, is for first-years to have a gender-neutral housing option." At this point, Spence describes, first-years basically have to out themselves to Community Living in order to receive a single because of their gender identity.
Degenderizing bathrooms is also on Spence's agenda. "Really, bathrooms don't need to be gendered. Okay, that's me," he pauses to personalize the belief. But he continues to discuss the inconvenience of randomly located single-sex bathrooms where there is no opposite-sex accommodation in sight. Right now, he is working with other members of Trisk to change the bathroom door signs across campus so that, he states, "we stop sending this message that bathrooms are heavily gendered according to a binary."
In buildings like East, now converted to dorm-style halls, there are often three bathrooms per floor: one female, one male and one gender-neutral. However, the luxury of three bathrooms is not consistent throughout campus, especially on single-sex floors.
Today, there are still students who opt to live on a hall with only people of their gender. Allie Saran '13 chose to live on an all-girls floor for her first year at Brandeis, and unlike many of her hallmates who chose the floor because of religious, cultural or parental influences, she admits that, "I thought it would be weird to see naked guys walking down the hall."
Senior Director of Community Living Jeremy Leiferman said in an interview that "As we were exploring gender-neutral housing, we talked a lot about the dichotomy of needs and interests of our population . both for gender-neutral options and for single-sex options. And I think we've done it fairly successfully by trying to maintain both aspects." It's about balancing the needs of the different students on campus.
Brandeis was one of only a little more than 30 colleges nationwide working to offer gender-neutral housing in 2008 according to a Boston Globe article titled "Just Roommates" by Peter Schworm.
That's pretty progressive for 63 years of existing.
What would Babushka say?