By Jenna Johnson and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:00 AM
The long-eroding boundaries that once kept men and women apart on America's college campuses soon will disappear at George Washington University, which this week announced that students can share dorm rooms with anyone they want - regardless of gender.
The decision puts GWU at the forefront of the movement toward gender-neutral housing policies at many of the nation's top schools. But where most have limited coed rooms to some upper-class housing, GWU is opening the option to all students, including incoming freshmen.
The change marks a retreat in the parental authority college officials at many schools once routinely wielded over their undergraduates dating to the days when dorm mothers stopped opposite-gender guests at the front doors of residence halls.
But the policy also signals the rising clout of gay, lesbian and transgendered students, who successfully argued that assigning students by gender was inherently unfair when many of them might be more comfortable with a roommate of the opposite sex. University officials considered opening the gender-neutral option to only some students before deciding to lift the restriction for all.
"Ivy League schools have it. A lot of progressive schools have it. It was time for us to try it," said Michael R. Komo, a senior political science major who is president of the GWU student group Allied in Pride, which lobbied for the change. "I really think it's a win-win for everyone, even for the straight folks who just want to live with their friends."
The proposal, first aired last winter, prompted concerns from some conservative students who argued it could create additional housing costs, especially if many couples became roommates, then later requested room transfers. Some also suggested that the new housing policy might erode morality and trouble some parents.
"This is the liberal administration at the university imposing something on students," said Travis Korson, a senior international affairs major and president of the campus chapter of Young America's Foundation. "None of these systems have been around for more than five years. There's no way to prove they will be successful."
But most students appeared to accept the looming change, scheduled to take effect next fall.
"I feel like gender is irrelevant," said Michelle Marshall, 19, a sophomore international affairs major from California. "I think a lot of people jump to 'Oh my God, people are going to have a relationship,' but that's not the way it is."
Katie McCutcheon, a freshman from Florida, said she and her roommates live across the hall from a group of male students. "We're already living on the same floors. I've fallen asleep in the guys' room. I guess they are making them 'official roommates' now," said McCutcheon.
"It's a nice option to have," she added, "but I don't know how many people will use it. I personally would want to live with my girlfriends."
The push for liberalizing housing policies at GWU began after a small group of male and female students moved in together at an on-campus town house they called Escaping Gender. When that proved successful, the students began lobbying to expand the concept across campus.
Last school year, the student government and some student organizations endorsed the idea. That prompted the university to appoint a committee, which recommended the change. The program will start as a pilot program, and school officials plan to reevaluate over the first three years.
All students will be able to sign up for the program as long as they already know their potential roommates. They then can be placed in nearly any of the school's more than 30 halls, mostly in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Students who ask for a randomly assigned roommate will continue to be matched with someone of the same sex.
"We have students saying, 'Can we be matched with someone who will be best for our academic pursuits?' " said Peter Konwerski, the GWU dean of students.
Konwerski said he expects questions from students and their parents about the program, but informal surveys have found that a majority of both groups were comfortable with the idea.
"If what they're doing is giving the students a choice, then I think it's fine. It's just another option," said Dawn Bathras of Severna Park, mother of a GWU freshman. "They're 18. We can't do much about it anyway, if they're away at school."
Mary Beth Cunningham, mother of a GWU junior from Springfield, N.J., said, "The students need to learn to make those decisions based on their own comfort levels."
Cunningham added that she wouldn't be surprised if daughter Erin chooses a male roommate next year: "She says girls are too much work."
Policies about men and women sleeping in the same room vary sharply across the Washington area. Howard University began to ease its policy on overnight guests only this semester, but many other schools dropped such restrictions long ago.
The University of Maryland at College Park has allowed male and female students to share rooms in two campus apartment buildings for the past two years. The University of Maryland Baltimore County does the same and has nine such apartments.
American University has offered coed rooms in apartment buildings since last school year and plans to expand the program. Goucher College in suburban Baltimore offers gender-neutral housing in two dorms, one of them coed by room.
Similar moves are under consideration at Towson University, Washington College and St. Mary's College of Maryland.
This semester, Georgetown University's student senate passed a resolution asking for a discussion about gender-neutral housing, although school officials have said they have no plans to change their policy.
The momentum behind coed roommates might recede as students discover that the reality of rooming with the opposite sex does not always match the vision, said Carl Crowe, director of residence life at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. "I think students like the idea of it," he said, "but after living it day in and day out, they begin to have concerns."