MIT, like most universities, is fond of promoting the diversity of its student body.
We define diversity in a broad sense: ethnicity, race, geography, socioeconomic status, gender, culture, religion, and even hobbies and interests. In the MIT Admissions Wiki (edited “largely by current students and recent graduates”) and MIT Undergraduate Housing’s website, diversity’s primary benefit is framed as increasing the likelihood that a given student will feel included and have a wide range of people and places to choose from such that they can be comfortable.
However, by seeking out people and settings we are comfortable with, we miss out on experiences that would make us more understanding of those with backgrounds different from our own. Over a third of respondents in the 2013 Undergraduate Alumni Survey reported that their undergraduate experience prepared them to understand social problems “less than adequately” or “very poorly.” Complacency can cause us to not take advantage of the diversity we are so proud to cultivate.
This isn’t to say that we can’t learn anything from the friends we make naturally and comfortably. But we learn so much more from people who are most different from us — the ones we would not have met if we didn’t push ourselves out of our comfort zones.
Taken as a whole, the MIT undergraduate population is indeed quite diverse, but we tend to self-select into social circles based on commonalities. Cultural student groups tend to be nearly homogeneous; we naturally only join sports teams, activities, or cause-based student groups if we share those interests; we work on problem sets with people studying similar subjects; and we get to know people whose lifestyles are similar to ours.
This self-selection is by no means unique to MIT. But it is amplified by our ability to largely choose the people we live with.
According to statistics provided by the Division of Student Life, as of Fall 2013, 37.3 percent of Next House residents are Asian as opposed to only 26.7 percent among all undergraduates. While 36.9 percent of undergraduates are white, that number is 51.1 percent for Random Hall and 46.8 percent for East Campus. All houses included, 38.9 percent of New House residents are underrepresented minorities (URMs identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander), while the figure is only 24.3 percent overall. By primary major, 6.8 percent of all undergraduates are Course 18 (Mathematics), but among dorms, it ranges from 3.3 percent in McCormick and 3.8 percent in Burton-Conner, to 15.2 percent in Random. Course 6 primary majors compose of 22.1 percent of all undergraduates, but range from only 12.1 percent in Baker to 29.3 percent in Random.
According to The Tech’s 2010 Politics Survey, on a scale from -2 (“very conservative”) to +2 (“very liberal”), McCormick averages slightly below 0, while at the other end of the spectrum, East Campus and Senior House averages around 0.7 and 0.75, respectively.
The Tech’s 2012 Religion Survey indicated that 72 percent of McCormick respondents and 57 percent of Next House respondents believe in a higher power/deity, while only 22 percent of East Campus respondents did. Of course, these data are not robust proof of self-selection, but they are still important indicators of it.
Several of our peer institutions address self-selection in various ways, usually with some form of random assignment of freshmen. Of course, what works for other schools would not necessarily work for MIT.
Blanket randomized housing (and other less autonomous housing assignment methods) for freshmen have been proposed several times throughout Institute history and abandoned every time following strong student opposition. In the early 1990s, students (and a Tech editorial) opposed random assignment of freshmen, which had been proposed in a 1989 report by the Freshman Housing Committee.
In a 1997 open faculty forum, students spoke strongly against a recommendation by the Committee on the First Year Program to randomize freshman housing. They argued that autonomy shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of diversity, that the sense of community in each dorm would be destroyed, and that housing complaints would increase due to students’ dissatisfaction with their residential community.
Clearly, random assignment of freshmen to dorms is not an idea that would be readily accepted as a way to encourage students to take advantage of MIT’s diversity. What if there were freshman-only housing for the first year (similar to the rescinded 1999 Ashdown proposal), after which students could choose a dorm much like the existing housing lottery system? Dorm culture would be preserved, while drawbacks could include a possible decrease in informative interaction with upperclassmen and decreased choice in the first year.
Or perhaps instead of the current ranked lottery for incoming students, dorm preferences could be indicated as binary values to allow for more flexibility of assignments. Naturally, with either of these ideas, there are, as always, individual special circumstances to consider and the technical difficulties of implementation with existing dormitory buildings.
Technical difficulties aside, perhaps these approaches are still too paternalistic — we are, after all, autonomous adults. We can choose what we get out of the MIT experience. Although, in hindsight, I believe some sort of randomized housing would have been preferable for me personally, I’m not asking that it be used as a solution to MIT’s self-selection issue. Rather, we should recognize that our housing system contributes to further self-selection, and we should do our best in other areas of our lives to counter this effect.
I’m asking that more of us choose to actively learn about people different from ourselves, that we choose to actively expand our social comfort zones, whatever that might mean for each of us. Cultural student groups are open to everyone: show up to events hosted by ones you don’t identify with and strike up a conversation instead of using the free-food-and-run tactic. Maybe even join a group, and if you lead one, host a mixer.
If you’re a freshman in GIRs, work with people who don’t live with you in addition to those who do (I know they’re slightly more convenient). Change your routine and do something different when the pace of MIT lets you take a breath. Direct interaction and friendship with different types of people may be just as important to the residential college experience as what we learn in classes.
Take advantage of MIT’s diversity. In the long term, it’s also — quite selfishly — good for ourselves and our own comfort. After all, the more we understand and empathize, the more easily we can handle the real world.