The Austin Chronicle

Razing the Roof

Square Peg, Round Hole

By Andrea Dennison, October 9, 1998, News

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!"

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.