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MIT Makes Magazine...s Top 100 List of Gay-Friendly Campuses

By Sarah Schweitzer

In an age when colleges live and die by their rankings, a new focus for campus assessment is emerging: gay-friendliness.

The Advocate, the national newsmagazine for gays and lesbians, published a 389-page book this month listing the 100 schools that it says offer the best discrimination protection, most friendly climate, and most extensive campus services for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. Sixteen of the schools are in New England, including six in Massachusetts.

MIT, for one, made the top 100. The school is cited for having one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian student groups and for early on including both sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy, yielding what the book, The Advocate College Guide, calls a high “gay point average.”

“It is a welcoming place,” said Natalija Jovanovic, a graduate engineering student at MIT and president of the Rainbow Coffee House, a gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual social group. “Because it’s so technically oriented, if you are good at what you do, nothing else matters. Transistors and chemical compounds don’t care what you do with your free time.”

The book arrives as surveys show that more gay and lesbian students are coming out at younger ages, often in high school, placing the climate of a college campus at the forefront of more students’ minds as they select schools.

“A lot of high school kids have already dealt with the issue of coming out by the time they get to college,” said Bruce Steele, the editor of the Advocate, whose sister company, Alyson Books, published the guide. Steele said the book’s aim is to help those students and their parents make an informed college choice.

The book does not assign individual rankings, but identified a top 20, including Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Since 1992, The Princeton Review has ranked the 20 schools that it considers the most and the least “gay community accepted.” This year, the review ranked New York University as most gay friendly and Notre Dame as most inhospitable.

Steele points out that the Review’s gay-friendly rankings are based on student opinion, while his guide is based on quantifiable data.

Harriet Brand, spokeswoman for the Review, said the survey of 115,000 students is more compelling because students offer a more accurate, ground-level gauge of a campus’s climate.

For the Advocate, the rankings book is an entry point to a potentially lucrative niche market. The magazine is so eager to attach its name to reports about the guide that magazine officials insisted that Steele answer all questions about the book and refused to allow the author, Shane Windmeyer, to speak with a reporter.

The publishing house has no sales figures yet for the book, which had a first run of 5,000 copies and is expected to be placed in stores’ college preparation sections, not their gay and lesbian sections.

Officials at schools that made the top 100 expressed gratitude in interviews for being included.

Bruce Reitman, dean of students at Tufts University said: “We know it’s a friendly, open campus. ... It is a nice statement for the community.”

Yet last week Tufts alerted the press when Newsweek had named it one of the “New Ivies” and did not publicly announce its ranking within the Advocate’s top 20. Kim Thurler, the school spokeswoman, said that Tufts does not announce its standings in every school ranking, adding that it did not publicize the US News & World Report or the Princeton Review rankings, for instance.

She said the Advocate ranking will be posted on the school’s e-mail news service. “We certainly weren’t keeping [the Advocate ranking] under a bushel,” she said.

Gay and lesbian activists and student leaders said that the book is a welcome addition to the online rumor mill that has tended to inform high school students’ decisions about gay-friendliness.

“I would have definitely liked having a book like this,” said Abigail Francis, 29, project coordinator of MIT’s Lesbian Bisexual Gay and Transgender (LBGT) Services, a position the university funded for the first time last year.

The rankings are calculated on a “gay point average,” which looks at 20 factors, including whether a school offers a resource center for gay and lesbian students, a variety of gay studies courses, scholarships specifically for gay and lesbian students, gay and lesbian social events, and procedures for reporting gay and lesbian harassment.

The rankings, educators said, might not have been possible to calculate a decade ago, because fewer services for gay and lesbian students existed.

The AIDS crisis in the 1980s propelled the creation of more services, which then multiplied in the 1990s as more students came out at younger ages, said Dona Yarbrough, director of the LGBT Center at Tufts. But, she said that today less than 5 percent of colleges and universities have centers for gay and lesbian students.

The rankings of the top 100 schools were not all obvious choices, some educators said. Smith College, for example, is not on the list, nor is Harvard University.

Steele said he wasn’t sure why Smith didn’t make the list; Harvard did not because at the time the Advocate was surveying school officials, Harvard’s antidiscrimination policy did not protect transgendered students, though that has since changed, he said.

Steele said he hopes to expand the list in coming years to include more schools.

But for now, “what matters is that schools are now going to compete to see who is the most gay-friendly,” he said. “They change because they have to keep up.”