Howard opens the door (a tad) to overnight guests

By Jenna Johnson
Friday, October 8, 2010; A1

Howard University is experimenting this fall with something that many universities did at least a generation ago: allowing undergraduates to stay overnight in each other's dorm rooms.

To study, of course.

On most of campus, friends and lovers alike still must depart each other's rooms at midnight on school nights, or 2 a.m. on weekends. But in a bow to the requests of student government leaders, Howard officials have agreed to relax such restrictions in one upperclassman dormitory.

In the week since Howard began allowing overnight guests in Howard Plaza Towers, West - a modern brick high-rise on the edge of the Northwest Washington campus - university officials have reported no increase in problems. Yet students have reacted to the pilot program not so much with cheers but with exasperation.

"It should have happened a long time ago. I'm surprised it didn't happen a long time ago," said Safiya DeFour, 20, a junior majoring in sports medicine who lives in the dorm.

Although the sexual revolution swept away or watered down sleepover rules at many schools, some institutions held firm. Chief among them were historically black colleges and religious institutions. Historically black schools have traditionally operated as something like extended families, with officials adopting more of a parental role on campus than common at most state universities or liberal arts colleges.

Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, said historically black colleges are "very much influenced by the values, traditions and social codes of the black community - which tend to be more conservative." Parents especially want that sort of structure, but often students do, too.

"Not every student wants to live in a coed dormitory. Not every student wants 24-hour visitation," said Lomax, a past president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

But Howard's resistance to overnight guests spawned occasional efforts to outsmart it - and a persistent suspicion that late-night fire drills were thinly veiled attempts to ferret out those defying the rules. The policy irked some students, who said that if they were old enough to vote, marry and fight wars, they were old enough to choose who slept in their dorm rooms.

With the change have come new rules: Roommates must sign an agreement consenting to host overnight guests. Guests must be current Howard students. Only one guest may stay over at a time. On school nights, guests must check into the dorm before midnight - and they must leave by noon the next day.

Undergraduates living in other dorms must continue to escort their guests out at the appointed hour or risk losing their visitation rights entirely.

"We're not elementary kids," said Ade Owolabi, 21, a junior who lives in the dorm but hasn't filled out the paperwork needed to have a late-night guest. "We should be able to have people come stay."

Howard Plaza Towers, West is one of the school's biggest dorms, with 840 upperclassmen in apartment-style rooms with full kitchens, private bathrooms and underground parking. It's close enough to academic buildings to allow last-minute dashes to class but removed enough to feel like off-campus housing. The neighboring dorm, Howard Plaza Towers, East, houses mainly graduate and honors students and has long allowed visitors at all hours.

College officials say that if students in Howard Plaza Towers, West handle the program responsibly, it might be expanded next semester to allow non-Howard visitors in the dorm, and the weeknight check-in time might be eliminated. There are no plans to extend the program to other dorms.

"We're looking at trying to be progressive and help these students grow into mature adults," said Marc D. Lee, the interim dean of residence life. "Everything has been going well so far. There haven't been any outrageous parties late into the night."

Other colleges are also taking steps to liberalize their dorm guest policies, sometimes to keep upperclassmen from moving off campus. Baylor University, a Christian college in Texas, has gradually added hours to the visitation clock in its dorms. Now, students can have guests of either sex visit between 1 and 10 p.m. on school nights and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Students in on-campus apartments have until 2 a.m. every night.

Last year, West Virginia University began allowing overnight guests of the opposite sex in one of its upperclassman dorms. At Virginia Tech, there are four categories of visiting rules, ranging from strict visiting hours to none, depending on where students live.

Catholic University has modified its visitor policy several times in the past five years. Students can have guests of the opposite sex in their rooms only until midnight on school nights and 2 a.m. on weekends. Last year, the school extended the weeknight curfew to 2 a.m. as long as students hang out in common areas - not bedrooms.

Even schools that allow visitors at all hours have some guidelines, and most require roommate approval. Georgetown University allows overnight guests but prohibits "cohabitation." George Washington University sets a limit of eight nights a month. Washington and Lee University allows roommates to come up with their own policy, as long as it includes "a provision for quiet hours" on school nights.

Some of the schools with visiting hours don't enforce them strictly. But Howard does.

If a student's guest has not checked out by curfew, housing staff members will search for him or her. Visitation rights are among the first that hall supervisors remove if a student gets into trouble.

Lee said the rules keep students safe on the urban campus. That's especially important for freshmen, who are living away from home for the first time.

But as students enter their early 20s, they can handle more responsibility, said student government Vice President William Roberts, 24, a third-year law student. He and other student leaders spent months meeting with officials and researching policies at other schools. "We thought it was time for us to try it out and see if we could handle it," he said. "The main thing is allowing students the freedom to decide what they do with their time."

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