Va. Tech's Pritchard Hall To Allow Women

This fall, Pritchard Hall at Virginia Tech, one the largest all-male U.S. college dormitories, will welcome its first female residents. University officials say young men tend to behave better when there are young women around.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of an experiment that changed the way college students live. In 1959, UCLA opened the nation's first residence hall for men and women to share. Since then, co-ed dorms have become standard at almost all major colleges. And this year, Virginia Tech announced it will convert one of the country's largest remaining all-male dorms to co-ed.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports on the end of an era in Blacksburg, Virginia.

ADAM HOCHBERG: To put it mildly, Pritchard Hall enjoys a colorful reputation at Virginia Tech. The seven-story building, home to more than 1,000 young men, is not known as a place for quiet study or vigorous intellectual discussion. Instead, freshman resident Mike Harry(ph) says it has a less appealing image.

Mr. MIKE HARRY (Student, Virginia Tech): Its reputation is that it's the nastiest dorm on campus. Apparently, the smell's pretty bad. I guess I've gotten used to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRY: I don't know. Whenever I have friends in here, they kind of complain about it, reeks of sweat a lot of times and things like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOCHBERG: Harry says this dorm, which residents call The Man Castle, really isn't as bad as its reputation, but its cinder block hallways have spawned a lot of campus folklore about boys being boys. There are legends of Pritchard residents pushing a vending machine out a seven-story window and holding wild slip-and-slide parties in the halls.

And sophomore Lee Walker(ph) says some of his dorm mates find unusual ways to entertain themselves.

Mr. LEE WALKER (Student, Virginia Tech): For a little while, some residents decided to see how long they could keep not flushing a urinal, and it went for a few days, and it was pretty bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOCHBERG: That doesn't seem fun to me for some reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALKER: It's definitely one of those things that you come up with a bunch of guys at 2:00 in the morning when you're bored.

HOCHBERG: Walker says Pritchard's atmosphere appeals to some residents and repulses others. But for several years, it's concerned Virginia Tech administrators, who want residence halls to play a more positive role in teaching students good social skills.

So to improve Pritchard's image, Associate Housing Director Ken Belcher decided to move in about 400 female students this coming fall semester to live alongside some 600 men.

Mr. KEN BELCHER (Associate Director for Occupancy Management, Virginia Tech): I've always wanted to make Pritchard co-ed because of just the perception of what Pritchard was. And we're trying to break that connection to, you know, this isn't your daddy's residence hall.

HOCHBERG: Belcher calls this an opportune time for the change because female enrollment at Virginia Tech is growing faster than male enrollment, and the vast majority of students here, both men and women, prefer to live in co-ed dorms.

Nationwide, colleges are seeing the same trends and many schools are scaling back the number of single-gender residence halls. Some, such as Ohio State and Duke, have eliminated them entirely.

Norb Dunkel heads the Association of College and University Housing Officers -International.

Mr. NORB DUNKEL (President, Association of College and University Housing Officers - International): We know historically and through research that if you put all men together in a building, the vandalism in that building and the behaviors are going to be greater. And when you move to a co-ed type arrangement, the vandalism goes down, the behavior goes down. There's a strong respect for one another in that building.

(Soundbite of construction)

HOCHBERG: At Virginia Tech, workers are preparing 40-year-old Pritchard Hall for its new residence. They're re-doing bathrooms and re-plastering and painting some of the walls. The university hopes that will give the building a softer look and make it more appealing to female students, such as Amber Ballard(ph), a resident assistant who says she is looking forward to moving in here this August.

Ms. AMBER BALLARD (Student, Virginia Tech): Most of my friends kind of give me funny looks because it does have that perception with people, but I'm just very excited to be one of the pioneer women to go in there because Pritchard is going to change.

HOCHBERG: Virginia Tech officials say even after Pritchard does change, three other dorms here will remain all-male, though they're each much smaller. Indeed, massive man-only dorms, the kind with more than 1,000 residents, are hard to find on any campus anymore.

Purdue University still has one, and leaders there say they don't plan to change. But housing officials at most colleges seem eager to bid farewell to all-male dormitories and their often dubious reputations.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Blacksburg, Virginia.

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