Why Duke University Won't Honor Freshman Roommate Requests This Fall

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 1:41 pm

Meeting your college roommate used to be one of the anxieties of the first week of school. But these days, many freshmen meet in advance online and arrange to room together.

Now, some schools have decided to bring back largely random pairings in the interest of broadening their students' horizons. Duke University announced their change earlier this year.

"We believe that you'll enjoy the opportunity to meet someone you've not previously known and will have a great opportunity to explore your roommate's history, culture and interests," read the university's announcement of the change from Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, and Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. The university will stop honoring roommate requests and instead match roommates based on lifestyle habits, such as sleep schedules.

Moneta says the decision to switch to was inspired by the "enclaves" of homogeneity he saw at Duke that seemingly stem from increasing numbers of preselected freshman roommates. He talked to NPR's Scott Simon about identity-based dorms, roommate incompatibility and reactions from students and alumni.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why Duke decided to make this change

We've watched over the last several years that an increasing number of students were preselecting roommates, taking advantage of social media or friends from home, and it began to become a much larger percentage of the class than we would've liked. There was more homogeneity among the students who chose their own roommates, and so we just reached the conclusion that it was antithetical to our aims of broadening students' horizons and, after a lot of consultation, made the decision that students would be best off by using some very simple survey about sleeping habits and things like that ... and going back to the random assignment process.

On compatibility versus homogeneity

We're being very deliberate about the kind of first-year experience that we think would best suit our students — an experience that really is about engaging with difference and opening their eyes to opportunities, and meeting entirely different people than the ones they grew up with or went to high school with. We just thought that [randomly selected roommates] would be a better approach.

On identity-based dorms at other universities

There's not a one-size-fits-all model that works for every school, and it's very possible and certainly within our own procedures where there is a need for a kind of pairing. We can make that happen. This is not to suggest that the only way roommates will [be paired] is by letting the computer do the assignments. What we're dropping is the self-selection by a student of another student.

If there's a unique need where we need to accommodate a disabled student, a student of color, the system will permit us to do that and we'll still make sure that no one is in a situation that's incompatible or uncomfortable for them ... Uncomfortable, maybe; but not incompatible.

On students of different backgrounds rooming together

I don't want to put a student of color in a position of having to be the educator of a Caucasian student, I don't want a gay student to feel like their job is to educate students who have not been exposed to gay students. But we would like the experience to be one in which students are going to encounter the full range and spectrum of students that we're admitting.

If the previous assignment process ended up in too many enclaves of students who are very similar, that works against the opportunity for students who might be different from them.

On legitimate incompatibilities that might result from random assignment roommates

We'll move them apart. We'll find a way to make it work it out.

On the reaction from students so far

[It's been] overwhelmingly positive, both on and off campus. We've certainly heard from a handful of the incoming class who thought they were coming into one set of conditions, but I would say that [there's] dramatically higher percentages of existing students, alumni, parents who've all said, "This is a good thing. This is what college is all about."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Meeting your college roommate used to be one of the anxieties of the first week of school - but if you'd been paired with B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music. But these days, many freshmen meet in advance online and arrange to room together. Now some schools have decided to bring back largely random pairings. Duke University announced their change earlier this year. Larry Moneta is Duke's vice president of student affairs and joins us from Durham. Thanks so much for being with us.

LARRY MONETA: My pleasure.

SIMON: And why did Duke decide to make this change?

MONETA: Well, we have a pretty distinctive first-year experience where we have worked hard to create an environment where students really get to know people who are different from themselves. And we'd watched over the last several years when an increasing number of students were preselecting roommates, taking advantage of social media or friends from home or - and it began to become a much larger percentage of the class than we would have liked. There was more homogeneity among the students who chose their own roommates. And so we just reached the conclusion that students would be best off, for the most part, going back to a random assignment process.

SIMON: Well, what was wrong with students finding each other and seeking - I'll say compatability rather than homogeneity.

MONETA: Well, I wouldn't put it on the top 10 list of things that kept me up at night. But to the extent that we're being very deliberate about the kind of first-year experience that we think would best suit our students, we just thought that this would be a better approach.

SIMON: I wonder what you think about this, Mr. Moneda. A quick online search will show you that there are schools across the country - and I'll just rattle off the earliest ones - U of Colorado, Boulder, Cal State, Los Angeles - where African-American or lesbian, gay, and transgender students, usually at the request of students, ask to room together. There are even all African-American dorms at some schools. What do you think of that?

MONETA: I think there is not a one-size-fits-all model that works for every school. And this is not to suggest that the only way roommates will occur is by letting the computer do the assignments. What we're dropping is the self-selection by a student of another student. If there's a unique need where we have to accommodate a student of color, the system will permit us to do that. And we'll still make sure that no one is in a situation that's incompatible or uncomfortable for them. Well, uncomfortable maybe but not incompatible.

SIMON: Do you at Duke make some effort to get people of different backgrounds together?

MONETA: We do. We don't want to force it. I don't want to put a student of color in a position of having to be the educator of a Caucasian student. I don't want a gay student to feel like their job is to educate students who have not been exposed to gay students. But we would like the experience to be one in which students are going to encounter the full range and spectrum of the kinds of students we're admitting.

SIMON: What kind of reaction have you had on campus so far?

MONETA: Overwhelmingly positive both on and off campus. You know we've certainly heard from a handful of the incoming class who thought they were coming under under one set of conditions. But I would say dramatically higher percentages of existing students, alumni, parents who've all said this is a good thing. This is what college is all about.

SIMON: What about the food in Duke? Is that your next frontier?

MONETA: Actually, we are arguably the best food program in the country and getting rave reviews from our students. So when students rave about food, the only thing left is for the faculty to rave about parking.

SIMON: (Laughter) Larry Moneta is vice president for student affairs at Duke. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MONETA: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPING STATES SONG, "RIVERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.