Catholic University Trusts Its Students

When President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America (CUA) courageously announced this week that he would end the university’s 30-year experiment with co-ed dorms, he offended modern sensibilities.

ABC News interviewed college students who — although not CUA students, and therefore not affected by the CUA policy — seemed insulted by what appeared to be disrespect toward young adults.

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“If students want to drink, they’re going to drink,” said one. A female who lived in a co-ed dorm with co-ed bathrooms said, “It turned out fine.  A lot of my best friends are boys.  By the time people go to college, they’re mature enough to live with the opposite sex and not have it be a big deal.”

Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, writes that co-ed dorms are one reason that young people today have such a “depth of… understanding of the opposite sex.  I can’t help but believe those qualities will help sustain their intimate partnerships in the future.”

Stepp believes that responsible female students need promiscuity to make their way in the world: “Women are more comfortable expressing their sexual desire openly, and feel right in doing so. Women also cite the goals of professional training and career as reasons they prefer casual sex. Relationships can be viewed as impediments.”

This is the wisdom of the age: Casual sex among college students is healthy. And students are going to drink or have sex if they want to, whether in single-sex or co-ed dorms — because risk-taking is healthy, too.

These reactions remind me of the dismissive response last year from some Catholic educators when Georgetown University researchers reported significant dissent and declines in religious practice among Catholic students at America’s Catholic colleges and universities. Don’t blame us, they said. Must be the secular influences on students before they arrive on campus… and anyhow, we can’t really expect young adults to live up to Catholic standards.

Asked by Catholic News Service (CNS) why only one-third of Catholic students on Catholic campuses disagreed with homosexual “marriage,” the Georgetown researchers blamed the culture: “This issue more than any other may be strongly affected by the millennial generation’s post-materialist view regarding marriage and sexuality.”

The study also found that, among Catholic students at Catholic colleges, Mass attendance declined significantly, and nearly one in eight left the Church before graduation. CNS asked the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) for an explanation:

“Disturbing as these figures are, they should not be a surprise and should not be interpreted as a specific outcome of students’ attendance at a Catholic college or university,” said Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Washington-based ACCU.

Yanikoski said the decline in Mass attendance and religious identity is often caused by weakened family life and diminished religious activity among Catholic families, ineffective catechesis in parishes, understaffed faith formation programs for youths, a sexually provocative culture, and reaction to the sex abuse scandal.

“Catholic campuses serving a broad cross-section of students can only do so much to redress such a collection of antithetical influences,” he said. “We know full well that our own capacity in some ways is weaker now than it was when priests and vowed religious were more numerous on our campuses.

It seems that defenders of the status quo simply can’t accept that campus life has any impact on students’ behavior — and also cannot trust students’ ability to behave.


It is President Garvey — not his critics, and certainly not most of his peers in Catholic higher education today — who places real trust in today’s students by proposing the shift to single-sex dorms. He believes self control is possible, just as CUA’s leaders did for decades prior to 1982, when co-ed dorms were introduced.

Moreover, he trusts education. It is shameful, even embarrassing, when Catholic educators make every possible argument to suggest that their actions and policies have absolutely no impact on their students.  Could St. Elizabeth Ann Seton have imagined a day when Catholic educators — and even many parents — simply throw in the towel and leave students to the influence of secular culture?

To their horror, President Garvey has the facts on his side. The social science data supports his decision, and Americans are increasingly aware that something has gone terribly awry in our “liberated” culture.  Indeed, CUA’s return to single-sex dorms could very well be heralded 20 years from now as a watershed moment in the renewal of Catholic higher education.

On Wednesday, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education released a report by sociologist Anne Hendershott and Nicholas Dunn, finding that the campus “hook-up” culture can lead to serious “psychological, spiritual and physical damages.”

“Sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and abortions — as well as a long list of psychological costs including poor self-esteem, depression and sadness — have been correlated with the emergence of the hook-up culture on campus,” they write.

Among the studies that the authors cite in support of single-sex dorms is a 2009 study published in the Journal of American College Health and touted by President Garvey. Researchers Brian Willoughby and Jason Carroll found that students in co-ed halls were more than twice as likely to engage in binge-drinking and more than twice as likely to have three or more sexual partners in the last year. Testing whether the results were affected by self-selection — i.e., students more prone to sexual activity and drinking choose co-ed dorms — the researchers found minimal impact.

The impact of single-sex dorms is common sense, and it’s a change that is long overdue. Contrary to those who think it insults young adults to insist on a wholesome environment, single-sex dorms convey the message that college leaders trust students to live responsibly when not beset by temptation and an assumption of bad behavior.

Calling young people to lives of virtue is hardly an insult. It’s a challenge that I hope CUA students will readily embrace.



  • Patrick J. Reilly

    Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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