When Richard Light left Penn in 1962 only about 1 percent of his graduating class was non-white. "Diversity," he recalled, "to put it crassly, was simply not an issue." Today, Light is a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and its John F. Kennedy School of Government. And, to put it crassly, diversity is his issue. Light is one of the foremost scholars on the evaluation of programs in higher education. His work on educational diversity is nationally recognized, and in it, we find some valuable cautionary notes for the University of Pennsylvania. Educational diversity is customarily considered in the classroom setting. Seated at the same table, the conventional wisdom holds, students from different backgrounds will learn lessons from each other they could never take from a textbook. Such diverse classes, a columnist on this page once wrote, are valuable because they create "an environment where any one viewpoint is less likely to be overpowered by a majority viewpoint." Yes, classroom diversity enhances learning. This has been one of the most important lessons learned since higher education became widely integrated over the last three decades, and its truth is not in dispute. But Light has found that diversity's greatest contribution to undergraduate learning occurs outside the classroom. As he wrote in a 1999 paper, "the main educational impact of racial and ethnic diversity comes from interactions in residential living." And at Penn, we find those diverse residential environments lacking. The composition of W.E.B. DuBois College House is almost entirely African American. The Quad is virtually lily white. In ethnically diverse Hill College House, white students and those of Asian descent often segregate into more homogenous social blocs. Non-white membership in IFC fraternities stands at a paltry 5 percent. On one level, we must recognize that only so much can be done. You can't force members of one ethnic group to socialize with those of another. You can't force more African Americans and Latinos to rush Penn's fraternities and sororities. You can't assign "token" minority students to every freshman hallway, imposing upon them to be ambassadors for the customs and traditions of their people -- as if that notion weren't absurdly racist in and of itself. Nor can we deny the benefits that DuBois House has brought to campus since its founding in 1972. Then as now, it provides a valuable sense of community for African Americans and integrates academics with residential life in a positive fashion. For all of the charges of reverse racism and self-segregation it has weathered, DuBois has brought far more good than harm. However, we should not neglect what we lose when different ethnic groups don't mingle. "When students interact with fellow students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in day-to-day living," Light wrote, "it makes... a strong impression. This finding drums home the importance of creating residential living arrangements that bring students from different backgrounds together, rather than creating separation by background. "If students from different backgrounds live apart from one another, a precious kind of learning may be lost." Indeed, at Penn, a precious kind of learning is being lost, one in which students ask the questions that "[do] not always lead to obvious or easy answers." It is all well and good for the University to support initiatives like DuBois. But it is a far different matter for us to reject out of hand the notion that there is something to be gained from a more integrated housing program. I would be little surprised two decades from now, assuming current demographic trends continue, for today's vague and unfocused student support for a Latino dormitory to have manifested itself in a shiny new college house. By contrast, look to our fair friends to the north in Cambridge, Mass. At Harvard, where students choose their roommates but the administration randomizes their house assignments, Light has found virtually no support among students for race-based dormitories. It is difficult to quantify the counterfactual, to determine what we have lost by not providing incentives for more integrated dormitories. But Light does note that when he graduated from Penn, there was a student he barely knew and would have liked the opportunity to meet. His name was John Edgar Wideman, and before he became an award-winning author, he was only the second African American to earn a Rhodes scholarship.Comments powered by Disqus
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