Razing the Roof

by Andrea Dennison


Wakonda House is one of the women's co-op residences that opened to male students this fall.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Inside the Century House, one of the 12 University of Texas Women's Cooperative houses nestled unobtrusively on the northwest fringe of the campus, one has the distinct impression that the women who live here have made it into a home. Christina Mendez, beginning her second year as house manager at Century, brings out scrapbooks chronicling the cooperative's 62-year history. Most of the pictures are of past residents from the Sixties to the present, engaged in daily cooperative activities, such as cooking, cleaning, and studying. Some pages are filled with newspaper clippings of a co-op event or the wedding announcement of a house member. While the hairstyles and clothing vary through the decades, the content of the images does not; the women seem content, confident, and comfortable. Mendez nostalgically turns the tattered pages of this preserved piece of history, visibly proud of the legacy of the women's co-ops. She is painfully aware, however, that the next newspaper clipping she adds to the book may read, "University tears down co-ops, plans for new dorm underway."

For more than six decades, the University of Texas Women's Cooperatives (UTWC) have provided for thousands of women the unique college experience of living in an all-female environment which is decidedly different from a dorm or sorority. Over the last six months, this domestic bliss has been virtually shattered. This semester, the co-ops were forced to open their doors to men. Now, the UTWC is in danger of losing its lease for the university houses and property, a possibility that has Mendez, along with the other residents, worried for the future of the co-ops.

Fewer than 250 of the 23,000 women at UT every year are able to experience living at the women's co-ops, and as such it has remained somewhat of a well-guarded secret. But when two male students, Michael (Ike) Leibowitz and Aaron Poser, learned of the UTWC last fall, they felt that the co-ops offered such distinct advantages over their UT dorms that they naturally wondered why there was no UT men's co-op. "When I lived in the dorms, I had friends in the co-ops. I began to spend more time [at the co-op] than in my dorm, because of the community that exists here," Poser said."There's more of a chance to form close bonds, which is fostered by living in small groups."

So the two men approached Floyd Hoelting, director of UT Housing and Food, with the idea of establishing a men's co-op. The university turned down their proposal, citing inadequate funds. But Leibowitz and Poser would not be put off by standard rhetoric so easily. They next approached the UTWC board, composed of co-op members, and asked for their help. The women did not see how they could help except to open one of their houses to men. Last November, it was put to a vote among the co-opers. More bad news for Leibowitz and Poser. A sufficient number of residents voted against the proposal that it was rejected. Members insist that it was not due to a dislike of men, but rather a desire to remain an all-female residence.

Poser decided that a lawsuit, or at least the threat of a lawsuit, against UT was the next step in what he saw as a breach of "equal rights and opportunity." But he and Leibowitz hired no random lawyer to pursue this case. They artfully chose someone they knew would ensure a quick reaction from UT. They hired Steven W. Smith, the attorney in the notorious Hopwood case, which ultimately caused the complete revision of the UT law school's affirmative action policies. "He has a reputation," said Poser of why he solicited Smith's help. "I felt like he was a way to send a message that male students should be afforded the same rights as women. And," Poser added, "I am pleased with the goal that we have achieved." With Smith's assistance, Leibowitz andPoser penned a letter to UT accusing the school of violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits any federally funded educational program from discriminating based on sex.

Accusations of sexual discrimination, whether accurate or not, are exactly the type of negative press that send benefactors -- upon whom UT relies heavily -- running in the opposite direction. However, according to the UTWC's lawyer, James Cameron, the existence of the co-ops was squarely protected under an exception to Title IX, which allows educational institutions to discriminate based on gender with respect to housing. There was even court precedent. In Wilson v. Intermountain Properties, Inc., a Utah district court upheld the housing exception to Title IX. The university's counsel was not satisfied with this proof that it was acting within the law. In an attempt to end the lawsuit threat, the administration mandated that beginning this fall, one of the women's houses -- Wakonda House -- would be converted into a men's co-op. In addition, rumors began to circulate that UT was not going to renew the women's co-ops' contract in Fall 1999. What began as a student-initiated effort to extend the reach of the UT co-ops evolved into a threat to their very existence.

According to Jim Vick, UT vice president of student affairs, administrators are considering "how to best utilize the space" the women's co-ops now occupy, a less than subtle message that the co-ops' days could be numbered. The UTWC's fear is that UT wants to tear down the co-ops and build a freshman dorm on that property, à la Beauford H. Jester Hall, the towering monolith which anchors the southeast end of campus and is so densely populated that it requires its own zip code. Phil Cates, a political consultant hired by the UTWC, believes that UT would not be so tactless as to begin bulldozing the co-ops the day after the contracts end next year, but that it will eventually replace the co-ops with dormitories.

"In my opinion, the university wants to kick the co-ops off campus and then, in five years, when the dust has settled, build a super highrise dormitory for all the rich kids from Dallas and Houston," Cates said. With the threat of litigation against the university no longer an issue, since Leibowitz and Poser accomplished their goal, it remains unclear why UT wants to upset its decades-long relationship with the co-ops. Of course, it is unusual for a university the size of UT -- with 48,917 students registered this fall -- to have so few housing options on campus.

Square Peg, Round Hole

Century House is one of 12 women's co-ops in danger of losing its lease with the university.

photograph by Jana Birchum

In the scheme of things, many universities are uncertain about how to deal with on-campus cooperatives, according to Jim Jones, executive director of the Intercooperative Council at the University of Michigan. "What makes problems between universities and co-ops is that the co-ops don't 'fit' in the university system," Jones said. "Some universities can deal with it because they see the benefits of the co-ops. For some, the co-ops are just another thing to worry about. It depends on the attitudes of the administrators." Jones said that most co-ops have "been subsumed into the university bureaucracy or died." He cited Oberlin College and the University of Minnesota as examples of how co-ops have worked positively within the university system. Oberlin's co-opsincorporated in the 1950s, forming the largest independent university housing co-op in the U.S. Jones said administrators were convinced of the co-ops' merit when an Oberlin professor conducted a study which found that co-op residents experienced positive growth in ways that students living in other types of housing didn't. "The university assists the co-ops without dominating them, because they have respect for cooperation as a value," Jones said.

Undoubtedly, UT has relinquished some control by allowing the UTWC to operate more or less independently. In turn, the co-op has had to compromise one of its ideological foundations. Autonomy is one of the seven principles which guide cooperation as defined by the International Cooperative Alliance, an organization that unites co-ops in all sectors across the world. At UT, the women must follow the same guidelines as dorm residents, such as refraining from alcohol and drug use. They also receive benefits such as police security and building maintenance. Their tie to UT, however, forced them to integrate male residents, even though the democratically reached decision of the members opposed the inclusion of men.

In order to reassert their autonomy and protect their financial assets, the UTWC recently decided to incorporate, which further obscures their relationship with UT but puts them in a more secure position, should they have to relocate. If UT decides to end its relationship with the women's co-ops, it will be at the expense of one of the more progressive legacies in the university's history.

Local Roots

The women's co-ops were established off campus in 1936, in response to the need for low-cost housing created by the Great Depression and the lack of housing options for the increasing numbers of women entering the university. The first women's co-op was founded by a group of 12 women under the direction of UT's Dean of Women, Dorothy Gebauer. Over the years, more co-ops, men's and women's, emerged. Many were forced to move from one rented house to another. In the early 1950s, the Dean of Women's office sought the Board of Regents' help to establish a permanent residence for the women's co-ops. In 1952, with financial assistance from some of the founding members, the women's co-ops moved on campus. Because the co-op residents do all of the labor, such as cooking and cleaning, for which university employees are paid in the dorms, the co-ops remain by far the cheapest residence choice for students -- about $1,000 cheaper per year than the on-campus dorms.

Although the university has never granted the UTWC a lease for longer than a year, the co-ops have seldom doubted the security of existing on campus. Part of this confidence, according to UTWC Operations Manager Jason Neiverth, stems from of an unwritten bond forged decades ago between co-op founder Dorothy Gebauer and former UT president Harry Benedict. Gebauer was close friends with the president, who served from 1927-1937. Supposedly, Benedict tailored the relationship between the university and the co-ops which exists today; essentially, the co-ops would be allowed to exist independently, in charge of their own finances and membership, without much oversight by the university, as long as they adhered to university policies. But the memory of an institution is only as long as the individuals who run it, and promises are only honored when they are not challenged with new turns of events.

Certainly, UT faces many new challenges. Growing leagues of freshmen flood the campus every year. In the face of a housing crunch, the property on which the co-ops reside undoubtedly becomes a more alluring and potentially lucrative prospect. Vick, the vice president for student affairs, maintains that the most crucial issue at stake in the pending decision is "the best interests of the students." But what Vick and other administrators may fail to consider is that "best interests" are not satisfied merely by providing a roof over every student's head. "Living in the co-op teaches you responsibility," said Jena Dunn, president of UTWC. "You're not pampered in the co-ops. When it comes down to it, you have to take care of yourself." In fact, these are the types of qualities that Leibowitz and Poser admired about the co-ops initially. Instead of tearing down the co-ops or building another traditional residence hall, maybe UT should respond to the positive outcry of so many co-op members and build larger co-ops, for both men and women. "UT has an obligation to create an on-campus community," Poser said. "But with all of these programs they're launching in the dorms, they're trying to build something they already have here -- the co-ops!"