For years, some colleges assigned new students roommates from different regions, races or classes. The idea, not very controversial, was to broaden the horizons of freshmen.
Now a more intrusive version of that plan has turned up via the University of Denver, where the chancellor believes a bit of social engineering will push students toward a diverse range of friendships. The chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, argued, “I don’t think it is enough to leave new relationships to chance. … Let’s cultivate practices in which students make friends not by chance but because we are cultivating friendships around community values.”
This idea does not always go well. In 2006, the University of Delaware infamously issued before-and-after surveys to find out whether students had become more willing to date people of any gender, race, ethnicity, or religion following the Office of Residence Life’s intervention, which it called a “treatment.”
Toward that end, mandatory one-on-one sessions with resident assistants asked students to reveal, and then discuss, their “sexual identity.” But this wasn’t enough: college men were putting up “a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts” than the women. Thus, one Delaware dorm hired “strong male RAs.” This kind of RA “combats male residents’ concepts of traditional male identity” in order to “ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors.”
At Delaware, the “community values” being pushed by the university were, for example, this version of anti-racism:
A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality.
Fortunately, Chancellor Chopp’s ideas are more like Cass Sunstein–style “nudges” than like Delaware’s “treatment.” In addition to requiring students to have roommates selected by the university, Chopp would support year-long “orientation programming,” perhaps mandatory, to ensure that students are having enough diversity in their contacts with others.
It may seem valuable, as Chancellor Chopp has put it, for colleges to be “cultivating social and intellectual skills in the context of community. Let’s … think consciously about how students are developing their character and wisdom.” But that sounds manipulative. Asking freshmen to share a room with a roommate with a different background seems harmless. Guiding students toward values the college thinks they ought to have sounds too much like Big Brother.