Not too many years ago, dorms at public universities were segregated by sex and imposed strict rules. Members of the opposite sex were not allowed in sleeping areas. Alcohol was forbidden. Curfews were strictly enforced.
It is instructive, then, to note how the very recent trend at some public universities of leasing space for so-called “faith-based” dormitories that operate under similar rules has raised objections by some. Few things in American society illustrate the slide of public morality as starkly as life at many mainstream public and private universities.
Today, the more liberal campuses not only have dorms with bathrooms shared by genders, they allow men and women to be roommates, if they choose. “I think the opposite sex is no longer really such a mystery as it was before," a student at Clark University in Massachusetts told the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago.
Given the level of familiarity bred by such intimate living conditions, that is small wonder. It does not, however, mean the modern situation is healthy.
Far from being neutral when it comes to accommodating religious preferences and moral traditions, these campuses have become hostile toward such things. Students leave the comforts of home to be bombarded on all sides by behaviors that, in many cases, they have been taught to avoid. These behaviors not only are allowed, they are encouraged. There are few, if any, alternatives available.
Many of the new faith-based dorms are run by the Newman Center, a Catholic network. It operates a fraternity house at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Other such dorms are at the Florida Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University at Kingsville and Troy University in Alabama. Purdue University has one in the planning stages.
At Troy University, a public school that opened its faith-based dorm this fall, students must obtain a recommendation from a minister, counselor or community leader, although they do not have to state a preference for any particular religion. Genders are divided by floors — making arrangements far more lenient than those of a few generations ago. Alcohol is prohibited, and students are required to maintain a certain grade point average while also providing service of some kind to the community. Bible reading is a frequent activity in common areas.
As with the other schools that have such accommodations, space is at a premium. The dorms provide exactly the kind of situations that appeal not only to anxious parents, but to tender high school graduates who would prefer not to have to receive a worldly education through a fire hose of unrestrained behavior.
Not surprisingly, this new dorm concept also is vigorously opposed by those who feel that public universities such as Troy are violating the First Amendment.
Their case is slim, considering the dorms are open to all applicants and run by religious organizations that do not use tax money.
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Their argument also is cruel and immoral. Research on brain development has shown that humans do not fully develop mature judgment skills until sometime in their 20s. Until then, they often act without a completely rational understanding of consequences. It is irresponsible to put them into situations that encourage behavior that could stunt their emotional and cognitive development.
The very least public universities can do is establish more alternative dorms for students who prefer more structured environments with rules concerning interaction with the opposite sex. For many, such dorms could provide protection from exploitation.
The best course, however, would be a return to strict rules at all dorms imposed by mature adults. No matter how realistic it may sound, this would be the most responsible and humane approach.