The past year has seen a surge in gender-neutral housing on residential campuses, with programs added at Bowdoin College, Emerson College, Goucher College, Lehigh University, Macalester College, Northwestern University, Princeton University, the University of Vermont, Syracuse University, and Yale University, and pilot programs at many other schools scheduled for implementation in 2011.
While most media coverage and public attention to gender-neutral housing has been positive (for example, see this article in the Washington Post), it is critical to manage communications with the local media, conservative student groups, parents, and other campus constituencies with some care. A few proactive steps early in the process can help prevent or mitigate consternation among campus groups or the wrong type of media attention.
Solicit Broad Input
To learn more about how colleges and universities can prepare for opening gender-neutral housing, we interviewed Peter Konwerski, dean of students at the George Washington University. GWU has just walked through the process of setting up a pilot program for gender-neutral housing.
From his recent experience with the process, Konwerski offers these practical takeaways for peers at other institutions:
- When the option is initially proposed, poll representatives of all your campus constituencies -- check in not only with donors, alumni, faculty, staff, the student government, and the residence hall association, but with student groups on your campus that have religious or political affiliations; "engage students fully in the process," Konwerski recommends
- Allow for several days of "testimony," where members of your campus community can visit a review committee and offer five minutes of testimony or a written statement
- Allow anonymous testimony
- Hold phone interviews with parents
"Spend a lot of time listening first," Konwerski suggests. "If your community does have strong reservations about including gender-neutral housing in your residential opportunities on campus, you need to know them and address them as early as possible."
"Put the story out early in the process to alert the local community. Find out if there will be any negative outcry at that point, before the decision is made. Test the community's response."
Peter Konwerski, GWU
Also, Konwerski advises reaching out to other offices on campus at the earliest possible moment; this initiative cannot be handled as a "silo" effort. Particularly, you will need to speak with representatives from media relations, the president's office, housing, admissions, and development to ask the hard questions up front. Ask if there will be implications for donor relations or application rates -- are any of the key administrators at your institution concerned about the effect the program will have outside of the housing office? You will want to understand and address these concerns early -- and find out early what legal issues need to be considered.
During the Launch
Once you have done your due diligence in checking how your constituents will respond to the initiative, Konwerski advises being just as intentional about your communications throughout the launch of your program:
- Make your policy as specific as possible -- clarify what the gender-neutral housing option is meant for, and what it isn't meant for (such as couples)
- Connect not only with your media relations professionals but also with the editors of the student newspaper to ensure that you and they are on the same page about how to talk with the public media about the new housing initiative; after all, journalists will interviewing both your housing director and your students
- Give your constituency groups updates throughout the process, both by email and by regular meetings