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First-year residence halls at Duke

When Duke University announced that this academic year the incoming batch of first-year students would not be allowed to pick their roommates, the headlines exploded.

Pundits espoused the benefits of students interacting outside their cultural bubbles, and online debates raged whether Duke’s reasoning on the shift was sound: that when too many students self-selected, they were not exposed to the type of diversity that is a hallmark of the college experience at many institutions.

But one semester into the experiment, the university has been quiet -- intentionally so. Officials said the policy change never was intended for public debate, but rather they wanted to normalize the concept of two people from possibly disparate backgrounds living together.

Some students initially pushed back that forcing random roommates would somehow promote racial harmony on campus (the student newspaper delivered a particularly scathing editorial calling this a “hastily-created, quick fix solution”). But the new rule does not seem to have fulfilled detractors’ major concern -- the scenario of a minority or gay student being fearful of being paired with someone with bigoted views.

“We’ve had far few objectors and far more supporters than anything,” said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. “We’ve seen nothing dramatic from students or their families.”

With the advent of social media, students had started finding each other far earlier than in previous years. Not uncommon were Facebook groups (generally unaffiliated with institutions) where first-year students could meet and chat before the semester began and quite often -- if they hit it off with someone -- pick their roommate. About 46 percent of students enrolling at Duke in fall 2017 selected their roommate, Moneta said.

Administrators there pair students by study and sleep habits, among other factors that the roommates indicate in a survey. The university does make special exceptions for students -- generally those with medical needs -- and to the chagrin of some, athletes.

While players can’t choose exactly whom they live with, the athletics department works to pair them together -- a basketball player would room with another basketball player, for example, because of schedule compatibilities.

Yahoo columnist Pat Forde blasted this practice in one of his pieces, writing that Duke was “taking another step toward Jock School status” by exempting athletes from the general random approach.

“Broadening horizons with a non-athlete roommate, opening eyes to opportunities and meeting entirely different people are only situationally important,” Forde wrote. “The school recognized a campus demographic problem, but won’t require athletics to be part of the solution.”

Moneta rebutted: the college “compensates” for having athletes room together in other ways.

“There’s extreme differences and diversity,” Moneta said of the athletes. “It’s not like they share the privilege attributes we were focused on.”

He said that the institution saw the same number of students in the first semester request a room transfer as officials did before the policy took effect. And administrators received no more than five questions about it, Moneta said.

Hadeel Hamoud, a Muslim first-year student, said at first she was uncomfortable with her roommate assignment because Islam dictates she pray five times a day, and by contrast her roommate was not religious (their lifestyles are relatively similar otherwise, although Hamoud said the university did not always produce accurate matches).

Ultimately, she said she benefited because it forced her to talk with someone (and her friends) whom she otherwise would not have -- they’ve discussed “contentious topics,” such as money, privilege, politics and race.

“This definitely would have been easier had I been matched with a roommate that is also Muslim, but I think it’s a blessing because it allows me and forces me to be comfortable practicing my faith and to educate others about practices of Islam,” Hamoud said.

Mashal Ali, a member of Duke’s South Asian Student Association, said that students didn’t bother using the Facebook group as much, or trying to get to know each other as much online anymore because they knew they couldn’t pick their own roommate.

Ali said that her roommate was an engineering student while she was in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

“I am not sure if I would have known her if we were not roommates. I believe the program successfully exposed students to more diverse perspectives,” Ali said.

In a column to The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, sophomore resident assistant Nathan Heffernan wrote about his concerns for gay first-year students.

When he was entering Duke and was looking for a roommate in the class Facebook group, Heffernan found a spreadsheet where students could publish some basic information about themselves. Heffernan decided to add a question about whether they would feel comfortable with a gay roommate. He wrote in the column that he was surprised when a contingent of the students indicated "not sure" or "I'd prefer not."

Heffernan wrote that he'd spoken to many LGBTQ students who came to Duke worried.

"In a case of two roommates, one who is gay and the other who has no exposure to the gay community, there are two possible outcomes: the other student learns acceptance, or they do not," he wrote. "There is a potential for the straight student to grow as a person, but this is not guaranteed. On the flip side, there is absolutely no benefit for the gay student. Either they successfully teach their roommate not to hate gay people, or they live in an uncomfortable environment until something changes."

Duke hasn’t evaluated the policy yet, Moneta said. Officials will be waiting a few years, working with psychologists and other professors to track the effect on students, he said.

“This is just one thing,” Moneta said. “The sum total of an undergraduate experience is thousands of things. What groups students join, what classes they pick, what majors they choose … what faculty inspire them. We have not singled out [the roommate issue] as the panacea.”

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