From A/C to sub-free, amenities and options abound. Is “gender-neutral” next?

Wallace Murchison '41, left, and Ted Phillips '41 in their Brown Hall room in 1939.
Wallace Murchison '41, left, and Ted Phillips '41 in their Brown Hall room in 1939.
Princeton University Archives

Editor's note: After this story went to press, Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson confirmed that Princeton will offer gender-neutral housing for the first time in the apartment-style rooms of Spelman halls in 2010-11. The Daily Princetonian reported Oct. 15 that the pilot program is not expected to involve other dorms during the first year.

On a crisp September afternoon, sophomore Christina Chang stands at the window of her spacious single in Bloomberg Hall and savors the college experience. “I chose to live on the fourth floor because of the gorgeous view of Poe Field,” she says with a smile. “I was lucky to have an early draw time — it’s one of the best rooms on campus. Upstairs is an enormous common room and a snack kitchen with an Insta Hot faucet next to the tap, perfect for ramen noodles or hot chocolate. I live above a computer cluster with a printer and blackboard, and there’s a laundry room on every floor.”  

Chang’s grin betrays a satisfied 19-year-old, for she is part of a lucky generation benefiting from housing improvements that would have astonished earlier generations. Gone are the spare, monastic accommodations of the old days, jokes longtime University architect Jon Hlafter ’61, who retired last year. “When I was a student here, you got to your room and there was a porcelain wall bracket into which you could put a light bulb and maybe a shade from the U-Store. That was it. You brought your own desk, carpet, everything. The lavatory was in the basement with a gang of WCs separated by marble partitions and no doors. When women finally came, plastic curtains were provided.”

Parents spending more than $50,000 a year expect better. Shopping around for the perfect college — or comparing dorm rankings available on the Internet — they want to see spacious suites, private bathrooms, kitchenettes. Construction of Scully (1998) and Bloomberg (2004) halls on the Ellipse marked the beginning of a tremendous expansion in Princeton’s undergraduate housing stock, spurred in part by fierce competition for top applicants. At the height of the boom, The Wall Street Journal critiqued the “summa cum lavish” lifestyle on many campuses, Princeton included, as an “amenities arms race” fueling a $14 billion “building binge.” Chang is enjoying the results — along with her neighbors in collegiate gothic Whitman College (completed in 2007) and in the brand-new dorms of Butler College, just north of Bloomberg, with their gleaming kitchenettes, studies, lounges, seminar and computer rooms, and food emporiums.

Unlike students at Yale or Penn, for example, more than 98 percent of undergraduates live on campus — because they’re encouraged to live where they can participate in University life, and because apartments in town are virtually unaffordable on a student budget. Take a stroll and you can study 253 years of room types, including some that long predate the amenities arms race. At Nassau Hall, administrators toil in former dormitory rooms that housed the likes of young James Madison 1771. As still can be seen, every room (all doubles) had three narrow windows, one lighting the sleeping chamber and the others for two closet-like alcoves or “lobbies” that contained a chair and table, derived from the study cubicles of medieval Oxford. God’s natural daylight spilled across every schoolbook in this factory for pious Presbyterians. In an 1855 reconstruction following a conflagration, the interior of Nassau Hall was rendered fireproof, and the 54 student chambers were heated by a central system of nine furnaces in the basement, which worked best when the janitor wasn’t drunk.

Christina Chang ’12 enjoys a common room in Bloomberg Hall, which offers air-conditioning, a laundry room on every floor, and other amenities that would have astonished earlier generations of students.
Christina Chang ’12 enjoys a common room in Bloomberg Hall, which offers air-conditioning, a laundry room on every floor, and other amenities that would have astonished earlier generations of students.
Beverly Schaefer

East and West Colleges of the 1830s inaugurated the dormitory tradition of no internal halls, but vertical “tenements” instead, each entered by a separate outside door and serviced by a staircase — the trustees were fed up with miscreants who rolled hot cannonballs down corridors. When visiting President Andrew Jackson strolled over to the East College construction site after morning services in the Nassau Hall prayer room, he was shown how the new four-story building was to be divided in two by a solid partition wall, each half with a stairway and suites directly off the stairs. “Entryways” would remain a fond tradition for generations — notably in the collegiate gothic dorms of Mathey, Rocky, and the “junior slums” of Laughlin, Henry, and 1901 halls, but lately, long corridors have made a comeback at Bloomberg Hall and elsewhere: They require fewer costly stairwells, plus modern fire codes demand multiple exits.  

Chang controls the heat and air conditioning in her room with the touch of a thermostat, and there are two bathrooms to choose from on her floor. It’s a far cry from the antebellum experience of East College resident Leonard Jerome 1839, the American grandfather of Winston Churchill. He trudged up stairs to the third floor, while Chang, when feeling lazy, takes an elevator. His double contained a common room with fireplace, controlled not by thermostat but by a servant who came barging in before daybreak to light it. (Students rigged contraptions so they could open the door without crawling out of bed on icy mornings.) There was no heat at all in Jerome’s adjacent bedroom. Chamber pots got dumped out the windows, which made first-floor quarters less than desirable. As late as Brown Hall, built in 1892, all dorms were heated by fireplaces with coal grates, and students trudged across campus to use a clammy bathroom in the “Crystal Palace” beneath Nassau Hall.  

The college treasurer rejected the architect’s idea of wiring Brown Hall for electricity, saying that any student who needed that newfangled luxury could run the wires himself. Today, the housing department would frown if Chang undertook this kind of project and minutely specifies what kinds of electrical devices she may own — the DeLonghi Model 3500 Espresso Maker is allowed, for example, but not the 4500. Fireproofing continues to be a top concern; students are no longer allowed to have fires in the older dormitories, and Whitman College features dummy chimneys housing only ventilation ducts. Chang’s air-conditioned room comes with a price: According to Thomas Nyquist, Princeton’s director of engineering, Bloomberg Hall uses about 15 percent more energy than a dorm without air-conditioning. (Campus electricity consumption has increased by 75 percent since 1988, although dorms suck down far less power than new labs and computer centers.)

The recent transformation in housing is not only physical, but programmatic. The mantra today among housing officers in the Ivy League is options. Postwar universities prided themselves in taking all kinds of individuals and sternly forcing them to live in the same way, as the Army had; this was true democracy. Princeton abandoned its old, elitist tradition of varying room rents in favor of a random lottery, and dorm rooms in Wilson College (1961) were built with no-nonsense cinderblock walls. But this postwar thinking turns out to have been a historical phase. Today, monotypical “Princeton Charlie” has given way to a multicultural array of students who are considered to have myriad housing needs and preferences. “The widest range of options possible is the goal,” says Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life. “We want to give students enough choices, since we know people have different study styles and sleeping preferences. We’re now a very diverse community at Princeton. In some areas students have no choice: They must take at least 34 courses; they must be enrolled full time. To the extent we can give them a range of options, we think it creates a ­happier student.”  

“Princeton students want as many permutations of choice as possible,” agrees Andrew Kane, director of housing. Starting with room draw — now done efficiently online — they expect an extraordinary level of responsiveness. “They love the fact that we offer a room-draw process that lets them pick their individual room, unlike many of our peer institutions. They love to study the square footage and floor plans and really customize their choice,” Kane says. Perhaps Chang got unusually lucky, but she regards room draw enthusiastically: “It’s pretty safe to say that you’ll get a room you like.”

Every year brings more possibilities in housing. The four-year residential-college system has gotten the most press, but other options recently have been instituted as well: substance-free rooms, single-sex-area housing, and — already in the Graduate College and being proposed for some undergrad rooms — gender-neutral housing. Last year, Chang lived in the so-called Nunnery, half of 1915 Hall set aside for women; the other half was the all-male “Monastery.” Segregating women and men may seem retrograde, a throwback to the situation of 40 years ago when the first 171 female undergraduates huddled in Pyne Hall. But the increased religious diversity of the campus and the presence of observant women who do not wish to collide with men in their hallways while towel-clad and dripping wet has led to this option being made available in Butler and Whitman colleges and in one upperclass entryway in Laughlin Hall. Chang found herself in single-sex-area housing almost by accident. “It was my third choice in room draw. Many of us weren’t sure how we got there. It was a very diverse group of 24 girls, of whom only two had chosen it on moral grounds. It was quieter and calmer, but there were many men nearby — so on the whole, it didn’t make much difference.”

In substance-free housing, first established in 2002, participants agree to refrain from using alcohol or drugs in the building and from making a ruckus as they stumble in from Prospect Avenue. (All dorms have been smoke-free since 2005.) The option has expanded enormously from the mere 10 beds set aside for it originally, to 365 today. “Each year we have more of a demand than a supply,” says Michael Olin, director of student life in Wilson College, where two entire dormitories have been designated “sub-free” this year. One is Dodge-Osborn Hall, where two big suites, once known as the Zoo and Sub-Zoo, were long infamous for boozy binges. Another suite, 211 Gauss, became sub-free this fall, one more storied haunt of merry revelers now fallen silent except for the studious tap-tapping of calculators. Critics cry that it’s all part of President Tilghman’s diabolical scheme to banish fun from campus forever. Wilson College seems quieter now, says Olin. Since he arrived two years ago, Public Safety has broken up a couple of dozen parties there, but never in the ­substance-free zones. “I’d love to see more sub-free dorms,” he says.

Dodge-Osborn Hall is one of two Wilson College dormitories designated as substance-free.
Dodge-Osborn Hall is one of two Wilson College dormitories designated as substance-free.
Marianne Nelson/Princeton Alumni Weekly

The implementation of sub-free dorms was controversial in Nassau Hall. “We were concerned that parents would force this on students,” Dickerson says. “And we didn’t want to create ghettos that are significantly different from mainstream college life. The big concern was, should we have intentionally separate spaces for students with different lifestyle choices? We’ve never had theme housing for affinity groups. We have been cautious about creating spaces that were comfortable to be in or to escape to.” (By contrast, Wesleyan University in Connecticut has 32 theme houses, ranging from the Women of Color Collective to Sign Language.) Sub-free doesn’t work perfectly: Some participants imbibe anyway, and rowdiness in neighboring dorms spills over. But the program has been positive, Dickerson says, in giving young people a place to live “without feeling pressured by their peers. And it’s also helpful for students in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse.”

More controversially, gender-neutral housing may be next. The idea is spreading quickly across campuses nationwide, coming two years ago to Princeton’s Graduate College. Old Tigers who never made peace with coeducation may need to read this sitting down: Gender-neutral means young men and women living not just on the same hallway, as they have since the 1970s, but in the same suites and sharing a bathroom, as would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Seven grad students have participated so far, two of them a dating couple and the others, just friends. Doubles and a triple were allotted. “We’ve had no problems at all,” says Scott Baldwin, manager for graduate housing. “I think it’s a great option to have for our students.” In a draft ­proposal, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) is considering calling for gender-neutral housing to be expanded to upperclassmen, and the matter was expected to be debated by administrators this fall, with implementation possible next year, perhaps in apartment-style Spelman Halls (in which the bedrooms in each suite are singles).  

Half of 1915 Hall is set aside for women; the other half is all-male.
Half of 1915 Hall is set aside for women; the other half is all-male.
Marianne Nelson/Princeton Alumni Weekly
So rapidly has the idea spread that Princeton and Yale find themselves the last Ivies with no gender-neutral option. Yale nearly approved it last spring, but some administrators got nervous and hit the brakes. On the 30 or so campuses that offer it, students like having the freedom to live with anyone they choose, and problems reportedly are few. At Wesleyan, fully one-third of the entire student body live in “coed housing groups,” sharing suites or bedrooms.  

There is high purpose here: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) advocates are driving the spread of ­gender-neutral, presenting it as a civil-rights campaign for the transgender, who resent being forced to live with someone based on the arbitrary distinctions of “man” and “woman.” They are pushing for more flexible applications for student housing, on which students could indicate identities including male, female, transman, transwoman, and other. Every Ivy recently has added “gender identity” to its official nondiscrimination policy, and according to Erin Cross, associate director of Penn’s LGBT center, “If you say you’re not discriminating, you’d better take steps to show that you’re not.” Penn launched gender-neutral housing in 2004 in response, she says, “to a gay male who wanted to live with a straight female friend”; now, the transgender benefit as well.

LGBT rights are partially behind the movement at Princeton, too. USG undergraduate life committee chair Arthur Levy ’10 helped draft the plan, saying that members of his committee “are pleased that this proposal is going forward. It will satisfy the wishes of certain gay, lesbian, and transgender students who feel more comfortable living with someone of the opposite sex.” To LGBT activist Emily Rutherford ’12, writing last spring in Princeton Progressive Nation, “Princeton lags shamefully behind the times,” and ought to allow all students to live gender-neutral, which is the “logical conclusion” of coeducation. Debbie Bazarsky, director of the LGBT center, has lobbied for gender-free bathrooms on campus (such as the one built last summer in Frist Campus Center) for the benefit of transgender undergraduates (no one knows exactly how many there are) who face harassment when using ordinary facilities, and she expects LGBT students will take advantage of gender-free housing. “There are students who have had challenging experiences with roommates who haven’t been accepting,” she says. “Some gay men would rather room with friends who are women.”  

Nationwide, some squeamish parents have expressed concern that their children are being offered an unsavory option — teenage cohabitation — with a university’s winking sanction. Conservatives regard the trend with alarm. “This administration is uncomfortable with the appellation ‘most conservative Ivy,’” says Brandon McGinley ’10, head of the pro-chastity Anscombe Society. “To be strikingly the only Ivy without gender-neutral housing would look like the taint of traditionalism and an old paternalistic culture.” As for the activists, he fears their modest proposals eventually will point to epochal change. “Their ultimate project is to eliminate any gender-based considerations whatsoever, and legal embracing of all sexual lifestyles. It’s a piecemeal process, taking each bite out of traditional gender norms.”  

David Hoekema *81, philosophy professor at Christian-based Calvin College and author of Campus Life and Moral Community: In Place of In Loco Parentis, warns against violating stuffy norms too readily. He hopes administrators at Princeton will ask, “Are we removing an important protection from some very vulnerable students? What looks like opportunity for freedom could be an opportunity for exploitation. Privacy is important, privacy within your room.” Yet gender-neutral housing has advantages, he acknowledges. “A lot of students here [at Calvin] choose mixed-gender housing off-campus because the behavior tends to be better. Also, there is the incest taboo, living in mixed housing, that may actually discourage sexual relations.”  

The decision whether to adopt gender-neutral housing will lie partly with Vice President Dickerson, who seems cautiously open to the idea: “In families we live with people of other genders, and in summer community-service work, sex isn’t a major consideration in choosing housing. Students in this generation care less about the old sexual taboos and more about the quality of their roommates’ thoughts and ideas.” But she envisions a much more restricted program than that at some other places. “Princeton is never at the cutting front edge of social change when it comes to housing,” she says. “Each school has its own culture. Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, and Swarthmore have much more liberal policies. Their policies work for them. Princeton tends to be more cautious in general in proposing change, and it may be an environment where for some students and their parents the idea of opposite-sex students living together might be a little concerning. Princeton has been very prudent and ­conservative in making these decisions, and we will continue to be.”

What does the future hold for Princeton housing? Will the push for options embrace the special needs of more and more subgroups — after the chaste and the sedulous, the teetotalers and the transfolk, what next? Beyond the possibility of gender-neutral housing, the crystal ball is cloudy. The Age of Affluence has come to a shuddering halt — “If there had been an ‘amenities arms race,’ it’s over now,” Dickerson acknowledges. Modest refurbishments are planned for upperclass housing, specifically their public lounges and kitchens, which perhaps will rebut the conspiracy theory that holds that the University has let those dorms decay in order to push more students into the new four-year residential colleges, with their fancy amenities. Everyone continues to watch closely to see if the colleges do prove a popular option, draining upperclassmen from the licentious Fun Zone of Prospect Avenue. This year, 113 juniors and seniors living outside the colleges opted to eat in college dining halls instead of on Prospect, up from 89 last year. Is this a bellwether of residential-college life becoming, as housing director Kane speculatively calls it, the new “Princeton norm”? Christina Chang and her fellow sophomores will help decide as they pick options for living next fall, their choices helping to drive the continuous reshaping of the housing landscape at this centuries-old school. 

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of the award-winning Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency. He lived happily amid cinderblocks in Wilson College.