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COLUMN

Don’t Touch That Blender

Jennifer Frank

There’s lots of talk about diversity these days, both on college campuses and off. As the residence selection debate heats up again here at MIT, the diversity of the MIT living groups faces challenge. But before students go running to administrators claiming that their living groups are diverse environments, perhaps we need to revisit the definition of diversity they use. Much of the current clash on this topic can be attributed to the simple difference between “Diversity Within Options” and “Diversity Among Options.” Cookie cutter definitions of diversity tend to call for some degree of homogenization, a.k.a. Diversity Within Options. However, the more effective form of diversity, in terms of actually allowing for unique viewpoints to be shared or expressed, is one that allows Diversity Among Options. It is this latter version of diversity that should be sought, and which MIT already has present in its living groups.

Imagine yourself sitting in a restaurant. You order your favorite meal, holding back on nothing. The waiter brings out your appetizers, your main course, complete with some sort of rich sauce, several side dishes, and a decadent dessert. You compliment the chef, and just as you are about to take your first bite, a hand reaches down, grabs your food, dumps it into a blender and turns the blender on high. A few seconds later, your totally homogenized milkshake of a meal is placed back in front of you for your dining ... pleasure. Suddenly you have been denied the individual experiences and pleasures that each original food item promised.

Such forced blending is akin to forcibly mixing everyone up in the residence halls and other living groups, and it does not allow for any distinct flavor to peek through. Critical mass must exist in order for that group to be active and express its unique characteristics. (Remember, the whole goal of diversity is to expose everyone to new experiences and views which differ from their own. Diversity challenges people to move beyond their own assumptions and grow as individuals.) The long-term effect of a watered down residence selection will be the ongoing homogenization of the living groups, or, at the very least, of the residence halls. This homogenization will be the death of the enormous wealth of cultures and experiences present in the student population. Imagine if every booth at the Infinite Buffet had been the exact same dish - what would have been the point? Where would the learning occur? If MIT wants to be a leader in all senses of the word, it needs to produce culturally literate students. Homogenization will make it nearly impossible to reach this goal.

But what about Diversity Within Options? Why isn’t it a viable option in this situation? Here’s another way of looking at this issue: an non-white minority individual is raised in a predominantly white suburb. After 18 years being a minority here, she figures she can handle attending a predominantly white college. She is surprised when she finds it incredibly difficult to “fit in.” What is the difference between her first 18 years and her college experience? When she was younger, she was only a minority for that part of the day when she was outside of her house. At the end of each day, she could return home and be a part of the majority. She had a comfort zone to which she could return.

Individuals need a comfort zone to return to on a regular basis in order to actually process new information and effectively learn from experiences, especially those that challenge one’s current belief structure. When that girl got to college, she was suddenly a minority 100 percent of the time -- far more stressful than being a minority for half or even three-quarters of the time.

The minor self-segregation that occurs in the MIT living groups is an essential part of developing healthy individuals. The comfort zone created in the living groups allows the average introverted or socially non-conformist student to grow at a comfortable pace. As long as members of the MIT community continue to ensure that students don’t become entirely dependent on their living groups, the self-segregation can be very healthy. The living groups need to be used as stepping stones to personal growth, and they currently do function that way for most people.

The MIT student population creates its own communities, rather than requiring hired staff to do it for them. (This is not to say that staff members aren’t instrumental in this process, but rather that they are not the primary creators of the communities.) The living groups are almost entirely student run, with governing bodies and self-imposed house taxes to manage upkeep and social events. Students hold each other accountable for their actions, and upperclassmen mentor freshmen, both academically and emotionally.

After two years of working within one of these more traditional housing systems and interacting with professionals from similar schools, I can safely say that MIT has successfully created the types of communities that other schools strive for but rarely achieve. MIT needs to embrace these successes and start viewing themselves at the head of the student affairs curve, rather than at the tail end of it. Our plate is already full of side dishes, a nice piece of turkey (or Tofurkey, for the vegetarians out there), and a rich, satisfying dessert. Let’s save the milkshake for a summer treat from Tosci’s.

Jennifer Frank ’00 is a member of the MIT Corporation.