Senate bill would strike down gender-non specific housing at UNC

Apr. 02, 2013 @ 06:32 PM

A bipartisan trio of state Senators is sponsoring a bill to overturn UNC’s recently adopted gender non-specific housing policy that allows students of the opposite sex to share suites and apartments.

Senate Bill 658, sponsored by Sen. David Curtis, (R-Lincoln), Sen. Ben Clarke (D-Cumberland) and Sen. Chad Barefoot, (R-Wake) would strike down the policy approved by the university’s Board of Trustees in November.

The policy would not allow students of the opposite sex to share rooms, and students must opt into the program.

 “The purpose of this bill is to help the UNC system regain its focus on the core mission of educating young people and helping them find meaningful employment in our state,” Curtis, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a news release. “UNC did not become a national leader in academics by wasting time and tax dollars on frivolous social experiments.”

Curtis could not be reached for further comment Tuesday. A phone number listed on the news release rang busy when attempts were made to reach his office.

Although UNC Chapel Hill is the only campus in the UNC system to adopt a gender non-specific housing policy, and no others are mentioned in the news release, it is assumed that if approved by the General Assembly, the law would apply to the system’s other 15 university campuses.

Kevin Claybren, a UNC junior from Alamance County who helped to lead the gender-neutral housing effort, was surprised by the news that there is a bill in the state Senate to overturn the policy.

He said in spite of what the senators believe, gender-neutral housing will help UNC to better accomplish its academic mission because students who feel safe in their environment perform better in the classroom.

 “It’s a known fact that students who are harassed and bullied don’t feel safe,” Claybren said. “Safety is related to academic outcomes.”

Alston Gardner, a member of the UNC Board of Trustees, said in an email that the senators’ move to strike down the policy is “interesting” and noted that it came without consultation with the board.

 “Why would they want to micro manage our housing policies?” asked Gardner, chairman of the board’s University Affairs Committee, which recommended approval of the policy to the full board. “You would think they might call me in their data gathering process.” 

In addition to their thinking that the policy is a waste of time, the three senators said in their news release that they are concerned about a provision that would allow first-year students who opt into the gender-non specific housing to be assigned to suites and apartments with upper classmen.

“North Carolina has great universities because we remain committed to pursuing cutting-edge research, upholding high academic standards and achieving excellence in the classroom,” said Barefoot.  “I don’t understand how a policy that allows a first-year female student, three months out of high school, to share a private bathroom with an upper-class male will help us achieve that goal.”

Advocates of the policy have long contended that it would help improve safety for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who are sometimes bullied and harassed by their straight peers.

Terri Phoenix, director of UNC’s LGBTQ Center, told the board in November that a 2011 report examining campus climate and the prevalence of harassment due to sexual orientation, found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students were 19 times more likely to report having experienced verbal harassment or fear for their physical safety than heterosexual students.

Phoenix and student supporters had sought university approval for the policy sooner, but UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp delayed bringing it before the board of trustees because “many stakeholders off campus” hadn’t been adequately educated about mixed-gender housing.
 “We owe it to this issue to ensure that people understand what we are proposing,” Thorp said in a memo to Winston Crisp, the university’s vice chancellor of student affairs.

The three senators referenced Thorp’s comment in their news release.

 “We understand that times change,” Clark said. “But the fundamental, core values that are woven into the social fabric of our community are eternal and unwavering.”

He added: “UNC must respect these values in the establishment and application of its policies as it continues its quest to remain in the top tier of the nation’s public institutions of higher learning.”

Under a pilot program set to begin in the fall, UNC has set aside 32 living spaces available for gender non-specific housing.

Four apartments with 16 spaces are at Ram Village, eight spaces or one suite at Carmichael Residence Hall and eight spaces, the equivalent of two suites, at Craige North Residence Hall. 

About 66 private universities and 32 public schools, including eight of UNC’s peers, allow some form of gender non-specific housing.
In North Carolina, Duke University and Guilford and Warren Wilson colleges offer gender non-specific housing.