College is destiny, or at least should be. It serves as a pivotal juncture for whom we become, where we live, and those we associate with thereafter. College shapes our values, and exposes us to ideas, people, and opportunities far beyond anything before or after. In these troubled times when we rediscover that racial and economic divisions, xenophobia, and political polarization still plague our country, differences seem to obscure commonalities. These differences are exacerbated by limited interaction and understanding, compromised civility, and the tendency to demonize those we do not know. Universities, as living and learning communities, are a rare and precious setting where dialogue can occur to help eradicate those divisive elements.
As an administrator at Harvard University in the early 1980s, I was affiliated with one of the dozen undergraduate "houses" - those residence halls that provide academic community for their affiliates. During routine lunches there, I observed how students tended to congregate together, which triggered some questions to investigate.
Freshmen lived in Harvard Yard, and then moved into a residence for their remaining years via a house assignment process where they ranked their three top house preferences (and almost always received one of these wishes). I began to study how Harvard students sorted themselves through graduation, and, to my surprise, learned how freshmen undid much of the opportunity to appreciate Harvard's rich student array by aligning themselves with others like themselves.
Working with the faculty head of one of these houses, I conducted an analysis of how housing assignments produced specific residential characteristics. We learned that upperclass students often clustered with those with similar majors - or with those who shared race, went to a private high school, descended from Harvard alumni, or participated in athletics. If we had more variables in the database, I imagine those too would have unearthed other self-selected student subcultures. During their freshman year, students were even drawn to others with similar first-year academic performance, which continued into their future years. The eventual academic achievement and traits of the houses could be traced to those who chose particular residences.
In short, freshmen quickly uncovered others like themselves and chose to spend their next three years with those students. The houses took on unique personalities based on this overrepresentation, which in turn helped perpetuate the cycle. Harvard's much touted diversity was mitigated by student behavior - likely unconscious and unintentional. What could have been a fascinating intercultural opportunity for students was perhaps more an isolating multicultural reality. Students had found ways to make their heterogeneous environment more homogeneous.
About a dozen years later, Harvard boldly reformed the housing system so sophomores would be randomly assigned to their upperclass residence. My experience, though, revealed an important lesson in human behavior. We tend to self-segregate, and seek out the familiar. The wish to create a rich interaction of people (which overcomes differences) is undermined by the wish to be among those who are similar (which reinforces differences).
Despite landmark efforts to reduce barriers in neighborhoods, housing, work, and schools, much of America remains severely segregated. We still identify individuals by their distinct ethnic "communities." Within our cocoons, we rely on remote, superficial information and experiences - and little first-hand interaction or insight - to characterize others.
Perhaps higher education is now among only a few institutions that makes diversification a moral imperative. Diversity writ large allows students to study, live, and socialize with those from other parts of America, other nations, other races, other beliefs and points of view, other lifestyles, and other socio-economic backgrounds. This exposure potentially disrupts preconceived notions, ignorance, and stereotypes - and can be among the greatest gifts a university provides its students. Academic institutions have argued all to the way to the Supreme Court that their mix of students is essential to the ideal student experience.
But our colleges and universities cannot declare victory based solely on statistical representation when this devolves into on-campus segregation. For many, college life is a series of missed opportunities. Like Harvard's realization in the mid-1990s, universities must find ways to overcome this human tendency to cloister with those like us. When admissions decisions are based in part on diversity, universities have a moral responsibility to fulfill its promise.
The very nature of a higher education is, or at least should be, unsettling. Ideally, the learning experience exposes students to new ways of thinking, to an array of ideas and possibilities, and to meeting others outside their comfort zone. De facto social silos circumvent the diversity imperative of universities.
Universities take bold and controversial measures to construct a diverse milieu - by the ethnic, national, socio-economic mix of students they recruit. These college years are pivotal to what students study, whom they get to know, their professions, their outlook on the world, and their lifelong friends and often their future marital partners. Making the most of this mind-opening, life-changing time is quite a burden to place on the college experience, but it is too rich an opportunity to overlook. Our future success in overcoming differences, fragmentation, and conflict might very well depend on this.
Jay A. Halfond teaches at Boston University.