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Should Coed College Dorms Cause an Uproar?

The Catholic University of America’s new president, John Garvey, received lots of press this week for his announcement that Catholic University will return to single-sex dormitories. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Garvey begins by relating that the initiative is an outgrowth of a series of conferences held at Catholic University to discuss his inaugural themes of intellect and virtue:

I believe that intellect and virtue are connected. They influence one another. Some say the intellect is primary. If we know what is good, we will pursue it. Aristotle suggests in the “Nicomachean Ethics” that the influence runs the other way. He says that if you want to listen intelligently to lectures on ethics you “must have been brought up in good habits.” The goals we set for ourselves are brought into focus by our moral vision.
“Virtue,” Aristotle concludes, “makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” If he is right, then colleges and universities should concern themselves with virtue as well as intellect.

Bringing topics like Aristotle and virtue ethics to the WSJ is commendable, but Garvey is on slippery ground when transitioning from normative claims to empirical ones:

Here is one simple step colleges can take to reduce both binge drinking and hooking up: Go back to single-sex residences.

I know it’s countercultural. More than 90% of college housing is now co-ed. But Christopher Kaczor at Loyola Marymount points to a surprising number of studies showing that students in co-ed dorms (41.5%) report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-sex housing (17.6%). Similarly, students in co-ed housing are more likely (55.7%) than students in single-sex dorms (36.8%) to have had a sexual partner in the last year—and more than twice as likely to have had three or more.

Garvey’s attempt to marshal social science data, in an effort to prove that single-sex residences will create a more virtuous student body, raises lots of questions about the use of empirical studies: might there be a selection bias, with students who choose single-sex housing (or the few colleges who only offer segregated dorms) already inclined toward less destructive behavior? But the technical objections aside, advocates of traditional norms ought to ask whether relying on social science data is the best approach for making their case. Cherry picking this kind of data is always dangerous, not least because one’s opponents will sooner or later find another study or revise the methodology to skew the results in their favor.

Further, it seems dubious that simply placing young men and women further apart will miraculously lead to acquisition of more virtuous habits. Anecdotal evidence from my own days as a resident assistant in the halls at Catholic suggests that the conventional wisdom Garvey claims to destroy — “that young women have a civilizing influence on young men” — is often true in practice.

One academic year I proctored an entire building full of young men, and they nearly destroyed the place: setting furniture on fire, breaking windows, and urinating everywhere. The next year the same building was occupied by males on the first floor and women on the second level (Catholic University has never run truly “coed” halls, but rather separation by floor). The partially integrated residence was far more peaceful and conducive to serious study.

My short Catholic University student life career aside, I think Garvey’s decision, for other reasons beyond what is quickly becoming hackneyed social science data, may nonetheless be correct: sex differences are real and truly coed dormitories (with the coed bathrooms of some universities) are part of a larger effort to create a gender-blind society; it’s a good idea for traditionalists to push back on this trend using whatever institutional levers they control. Further, single-sex residences hold the potential for creating a more virtuous and elevated learning environment. But unlocking the possibilities will require many additional steps to habituate students in the Aristotelian “habits” Garvey admires. I’m pessimistic that the largely indolent bureaucracy of any modern university — even one as good and well-intentioned as Catholic’s — will be able to achieve such a widespread change in institutional culture, let alone individual hearts and minds.

Even a formal commitment to virtue education might not be enough. A deep moral transformation might first require, as philosopher John Haldane alluded to at President Garvey’s symposium, a change in the hearts of the university’s faculty and student body:

Catholicism is not first and foremost about sexual ethics, or abortion, or liturgy, or justice and peace, or environmental stewardship. Rather it is about coming to know, to love and to serve God. Perhaps the rest follows, but it follows and does not lead, and nor is it an acceptable substitute for faith. That was the mistake of Pelagius: to believe that we can be saved by moral endeavor.

May John Garvey and Catholic University be given the grace they will need as they chart a new course toward the integration of intellect and virtue.

about the author

Lewis McCrary, executive editor, began his career in journalism as an editorial assistant and later senior editor at The American Conservative. Before returning to TAC, he was managing editor of The National Interest and Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. His writing has also appeared at RealClearPoliticsThe Atlantic, and Next City. An alumnus of The Catholic University of America, Cambridge, and Georgetown, he now resides in central Indiana with his wife and two young sons.

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