Last June I wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining why The Catholic University of America is returning to single-sex residences. I said that the change was an old-fashioned remedy for two problems of growing concern on university campuses: binge drinking and hooking up. The article generated a frenzy of media attention, with voices arguing for and against the wisdom of our new policy. One unhappy faculty member at another school went so far as to file a legal complaint against me for sex discrimination. It was dismissed earlier this week.
One of the most common arguments made by those who objected to our new policy was that single-sex residences are an obstacle to friendships with the opposite sex. As a university administrator, I took these objections seriously. Friendship is one of the great goods in our lives. Aristotle says we can’t be happy without it. Catholics see friendship as an expression of love between persons, like the love between the persons of the Trinity. When Jesus talks about reducing the law and the prophets to two commandments, “love” is the operative word in each. Forming good, lasting, healthy friendships is an integral part of students’ experience at Catholic University, and one of the things we want most for them.
Some people suggest that shared living space promotes friendship between men and women. In this respect we think differently. Shared living space might mean spending more hours with the opposite sex. But it often doesn’t foster the mutual respect necessary for real friendship.
The prevalence of “hooking up” on college campuses is both a cause and a sign of this decline in solid friendships between men and women. When students “hook up,” they put sex before love. Our goal is not to make students think sex is bad. It’s not. But as those of us with a few more years of life know, when sex comes first, it’s often mistaken for love. Worse still, it can become a kind of recreational pleasure that lets people think they can live without love. Friendship between men and women – the kind that leads to healthy relationships and lasting marriages – requires that love come first.
Returning to single-sex residence halls will not eliminate sex on college campuses. It will not put an end to one-night stands and mistakes made in the heat of the moment, though social science evidence and common sense indicate it will limit the opportunity for those things. Sex is a powerful force. Students today are bombarded with messages telling them that casual sex will make them happy. We know it won’t. By making the change we have made, we hope both to send a message and to give our students a chance at love. Fostering a greater sense of mutual respect between men and women on our campus will help them form the kinds of friendships that can sustain marriages and lead to real happiness.
When my wife and I sent our kids off to college, we didn’t expect that they would make no mistakes. We did hope, if marriage was to be their vocation in life, that they might find real love. We hope the same for our students at Catholic University.
John Garvey is the President of The Catholic University of America.