When an incoming member of the first-year class indicated on his housing preference form that he did not want to live with a gay roommate, the Office of Residential Life knew just what to do.
"We placed [him] in a building with a proctor who we knew to be out and would be comfortable...educating this person," said Associate Director of Housing Operations Lisa Rendall.
Though it's too early to tell how this experiment is panning out, conscientious efforts to promote tolerance through living arrangements are not uncommon.
Colleges and universities across the country have been studying the effects of diversity in residential collegiate settings. The focus of this body of work has largely been the effects of pairing roommates of different races.
As reported in Tamar Lewin's New York Times article "Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice", Ohio State found, as did other schools, that roommates who are of different races are twice as likely to request room transfers as same-race pairings.
"The statistics support what I see at Bowdoin," said Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Programs Wil Smith. Smith added that while his comments reflect his personal experience, Bowdoin is working on collecting empirical data of its own on the subject.
Smith warned that while race is often cited as the issue in a roommate conflict, it may not always be the actual reason. Smith's theory is that when two students are assigned to live in a room with one another and are uncomfortable, "race is the most obvious difference," though the differences, in fact, are often more subtle and numerous.
"[Race is] the easy thing to blame it on right away," he said.
Changes in rooms don't happen often at Bowdoin.
"We usually only move people if there's a feeling of lack of safety," said Director of Residential Life Mary Pat McMahon.
According to Smith, however, the majority of instances in roommate issues do involve roommates of different races, as the studies at other schools found.
"Quite a few have been culturally related and between people of different races and cultural backgrounds," he said.
McMahon believes that most roommate conflicts are rooted in differences and discomfort, irrelevant to race.
"Most first years at Bowdoin have never shared a room before," she said, citing a major cause of first year discomfort.
The Office of Residential Life does not keep records of the reasons why students request to change rooms, only of the changes themselves.
Director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity Kate Stern suggested that even if Residential Life did record the reasons for changing rooms, the data may not be representative of the real forces at work.
When Stern was a first year at college and wanted to change rooms due to her roommates' homophobic remarks, she told Residential Life that it was because they played music too loudly. Some students, she said, are not willing to out themselves by way of a room change.
Last year, current students who had had experiences similar to Stern's approached her to determine whether they could find "a way to help [LGBTQ] first years get safer housing."
After a roundtable discussion involving students, as well as faculty and staff, Residential Life added a new question to this year's housing preference form, which incoming first years fill out over the summer.
Incoming students were asked to what extent they valued "maintaining queer friendly space" in their rooms.
Given the query on comfort with queer-friendly space, McMahon and her colleagues considered adding a question regarding race, in part because they "didn't want it to seem like that was less important." However, they ultimately decided against it.
Stern felt that because "most students of color...are coming from homes where their ethnicity is mirrored"—meaning their family is of the same race—the College did not need to specifically provide for them in the same way they did LGBTQ students, many of whom do not come from homes and communities where their sexual orientation is mirrored or supported.
The question appeared primarily so that the "ones who valued it [queer-friendly living] the most and the ones who valued it the least don't end up as roommates," she said. "It's better to know than to not know."
Stern said that she and others involved in adding the queer friendly question had difficulty framing it. On the one hand, they had to be careful not to phrase it in a way that implied that the College sanctioned intolerance by having a space where one could express it.
"How do we ask the question in a way that doesn't just let people off the hook?" said Stern.
On the other hand, however, if a student indicates on the form that they do not value queer friendly living, it does not necessarily mean that they are homophobic, according to Stern.
"There are many reasons for saying you don't value queer-friendly living."
When Stern was a first year, she said that one of her peers wrote that he did not want a gay roommate on his housing preference form. Two years later, he came out.
In reference to the first-year that Residential Life intentionally placed with a gay proctor, Stern said it is important to consider that new students may not have confronted issues of sexuality before, including their own. Being around a gay proctor may be helpful for students who need support.
Regardless of how students respond to the queer friendly question, the standard for social conduct remains the same.
"We expect respect and tolerance from all of our students," said McMahon.