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TOLLIVER: Ending the roommate selection process is futile without institutional change

It is unclear whether the potential plans to limit roommate selections for first-year students will encourage diverse perspectives or put salt in the wound

<p>The Balz-Dobie dorm houses most of the first year Echols scholars.</p>

The Balz-Dobie dorm houses most of the first year Echols scholars.

Not too long ago, a student stood in the then newly-transformed Multicultural Student Center and said there were “too many white people.” This statement was obviously inappropriate for many reasons, but it would be incorrect to say that this does not represent many non-white people’s views at predominantly white colleges or other traditional institutions. The statement exemplifies a norm that society has adopted either from fear, convenience or psychological nature — the norm to self-segregate. The University, given its history and vow to equity, wants to do away with this norm, and I could not agree more. The way to get students and faculty alike to actually work towards stopping this trend is up for debate, however.

In keeping with its 2030 Strategic Plan, the University has proposed redesigning the housing experience. Among requiring both first and second-year students to live on Grounds, University President Jim Ryan is also exploring the possibility of not allowing roommate requests for first years. Both of these strategies will be used to strengthen connections among students. If implemented, the latter proposal will look to lessen the housing segregation seen among students. First-year students tend to segregate by race, geography and socioeconomic background — a trend that, for the most part, continues throughout their remaining years.

The University is not the first to flirt with this idea — in fact, other colleges have already implemented it. Duke University, New York University and Vanderbilt University are a handful of colleges that have begun to limit or completely do away with the option for roommate selection among first-year students. The concept is debated, as some find it useful and surprising when it succeeds, while others believe it to be authoritarian and forceful, especially when it fails. As results have shown, randomizing students is beneficial. It increases the likelihood of students who had a roommate of a different race rooming with another person of color the following year. Moreover, this could increase students’ open-mindedness to affirmative action in colleges and income distribution by race and in general, could increase students’ acceptance of other racial groups. 

Social science says this process of first-year roommate randomization works. While such measures initially received pushback and tension at colleges like Duke and Vanderbilt, they slowly gained support. The University would not be going into this ambition blindly — that being said, the University must be deliberate with its intentions as the success of other colleges in this endeavor is often a matter of each college’s goal. Since these programs are so new, they have not been extensively evaluated for diversity, equity and inclusion impact. If DEI is not the goal for the University, its entire plan is in vain. One of the most common reasons that colleges — including the University — give for wanting to implement roommate randomization for first-years is to teach students how to lead and live in an increasingly inclusive and diverse society. Changes to the roommate selection are good, but futile without institutional change.

Thus, the University’s goals in implementing roommate randomization should be to not only change the students’ lives, but to change the institution. A truly “great and good” University has diversity, equity and inclusion at its foundation — a much harder goal for the University to achieve, given that its founder chose our location for its proximity to white people. Nonetheless, this is possible. For instance, when Duke first implemented roommate randomization, the Duke Chronicle characterized the plan as “a hastily-created quick-fix solution.” We will have to wait a few years to learn if they were right, but this description proves my point — intervening to change what we see as we walk around Grounds would be a waste. We should not be concerned with “too many white people” or even too many people of color. The goal is equality. Everyone should have the same opportunities, the best experiences and the most effective education no matter one’s background. Culture will inevitably change, but policies stay the same until we intervene.

Shaleah Tolliver is the Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.