In recent years, though, college administrators have viewed roommate matching to a list of tools they have at their disposal to help students encounter people from different backgrounds and broaden their horizons. Which are, of course, two of the primary goals of college administrators these days. My own freshman roommate was from West Virginia, the daughter of union activists (if I'm remembering right) who plastered her side of the room with Democratic party paraphernalia. I woke every morning that year to a sign that said "It's the economy, stupid." I didn't write my college essay about being a Republican so I can only assume that this was just the roommate gods having a good laugh. As it happened, we had a perfectly fine experience, though I would say early on we just decided not to talk about politics. Maybe I was just supposed to learn that liberals put on their pants one leg at a time too. (I'm pretty sure I knew this before, though.)
In fact, studies show that roommate experiences do actually have some effect on producing greater tolerance among people of different backgrounds. A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about some of these findings.
In a paper . . . called "Interracial Friendships in the Transition to College," researchers Elizabeth Stearns of the University of North Carolina, Claudia Buchmann of Ohio State, and Kara Bonneau of Duke report that "students with a roommate of a different race have significantly higher proportions of interracial friendships than those who have a same-race roommate." Researchers all over the country have found the same results in their own studies.
And they are explained by what social scientists call "contact theory," which posits how certain kinds of interactions produce greater tolerance among people. Those interactions must typically be frequent, involve some kind of collaborative effort and take place among people of equal status (that is, two students are more likely to experience its effects than a professor and a student).
(These effects, by the way, were not found among students from different racial background who merely took classes together. Generally speaking, it is perfectly possible to sit in class with another person a few hours a week without having any contact with him or her whatsoever.)
As heartwarming as the findings of the papers were, one can easily imagine that there are still risks in putting people of different backgrounds together. Interracial roommates did request transfers at about twice the rate of same-race ones, according to one study.
So how does all of this relate to the Rutgers case? To begin with I don't want to excuse Dharun Ravi's behavior. Taping your roommate's sexual activities and broadcasting them online for others is unethical and illegal and I think he should have been convicted. That being said, I can't stand "bias crime" prosecutions. I don't really care what the young man was thinking. I care about what he did. And so, like many commentators, I think his sentence was needlessly harsh.
I don't know what exactly the Rutgers administrators knew about the Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi before putting them together. But let's assume they knew everything. A straight, upper-middle class Indian immigrant who drove a BMW during high school, Ravi even suggested that his father would throw Clementi out the window if he found out about his roommate's homosexuality. Clementi was a gay, less well-off violinist, the son of a nurse and a public works employee who attended an evangelical church. Wouldn't it be fun if they had to live together? Wouldn't they both learn so much from the experience?
I'm not saying a severe conflict between the two was baked into the dormitory cake. Their differences were supposed to be a source of interest for each of them, eventually resulting in a broadening of the horizons. And more times than not that may happen. But as we continue to widen the population who goes to four-year colleges and as we hold fewer and fewer values in common as a society, the roommate matching process will continue to provide temptations for college administrators. (Oh a black woman who believes in polyamory? Let's put her with that former Mormon missionary.) These are not likely to end in violence, let alone death, but they may not end in greater tolerance either.