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Housing reform betrays Duke's diversity

A common value defines the Duke experience. It pops up on path signs around Cameron and Wallace Wade Stadiums. Proudly and prominently, it marquees on basically every item of Duke promotional material and across Duke’s expansive web presence. In the many notifications from President Price and the occupants of the Allen building, the administration often reaffirms its commitment to this value: diversity. 

Far from a top-down phenomenon, the value of diversity is strongly agreed upon by administrators, faculty, and students alike. For instance, each of the candidates for Young Trustee made consistent overtures to the value of diversity during the campaign. If there is any unease surrounding the Duke consensus on diversity, it comes from the more ardent proponents who think the administration does not go far enough towards promoting diversity. Marching in lockstep, the collective of Duke University is apparently united in its commitment to diversity. 

But talk is cheap. As many in the Chronicle have argued, what Duke students want are actionable policies that promote diversity, not further rhetorical kowtowing to idealistic abstractions. The next step towards a tangibly diverse Duke could come through housing reform; the University’s management of this process will be crucial. Consequently, to materially realize Duke’s value of diversity, we should liberalize the process of chartering new selective, social organizations. 

As it currently stands, many advocates of housing reform propose ending selective social arrangements. They argue that selectivity sours the independent experience, that selective groups on campus, and Greek Life in particular, are often not representative of the broader community, and that selective living creates social stratification on Duke’s campus. To remedy these social ills, Duke Students for Housing Reform proposes several potential options for the structure of housing at Duke, including a Linking Model, a Match Model, and a Random Assignment Model. The proposals vary slightly, but they are united in that all three involve ending selective housing at Duke, taking the power to determine housing away from students and leaving it up to either chance, algorithms or the administration, and drastically limiting the housing options available to students in favor of a singular model. 

What is confusing about the proponents of housing reform is that they claim their movement will promote diversity at Duke. Somehow, a one size fits all, homogenized housing system that treats Duke students like demographic widgets who need to be allocated according to chance or the whims of an algorithm or some “greater plan” concocted by the administration promotes diversity. After all, how committed are we to diversity if we do not allow different students (with different interests, aspirations and needs) to make different choices? A housing system that empowers a diverse student body to make different decisions for differing reasons represents a tangible embodiment of diversity! I would assume every Duke student knows themselves better than anyone else. Yet according to the sages of housing reform, we cannot be trusted to take this knowledge of self and make a choice about where and how to live. Apparently, Duke’s student body is not entitled to the tangible expression of its diversity in the form of different living arrangements because self-appointed experts know better. We allow for students to make critically important choices for themselves on a number of decisions like major, career, nutrition, exercise, internships, club membership, etc.—why should housing be the exception? Duke students are knowledgeable, passionate and driven adults, and we should be treated with the respect and agency we deserve. 

The system that the housing reform movement proposes leans too far in one direction. What they have proposed eliminates all the interesting distinctions and peculiarities of Duke’s social scene in favor of bland uniformity. Such a system would be radically inclusive (all would be enveloped regardless of preference), but it would not be diverse. 

Instead of establishing a drab, homogenous housing system, I propose we allow for new arrangements. Rather than leaving the allocation of housing up to some external entity, let’s make a simple, smart choice: students should choose for themselves. To make this vision a reality, the barriers to forming an SLG or Greek organization should be substantially lowered so that more Duke students feel empowered to form unique communities to call their own. If you want to form an SLG dedicated to fostering a community for LGBT+ people, go for it. If you want to revive a defunct fraternity chapter, by all means. If another arrangement is best for you, then form a new organization that caters to an underserved community on campus, whatever that may be. However students organize themselves and express their preferences, they should be able to do that with as few restrictions as possible.

Moreover, students should be empowered to experiment with new forms of social organizations beyond simply SLGs and Greek life. In fact, it has already been attempted! The students behind Hyde House tried just this when they proposed the establishment of a Selective Social Group (SSG: a social group that chooses its own members much like SLGs but is not tied to housing). Despite Hyde House’s potential to open new social opportunities for Duke students, DSG voted 23-19 against chartering Hyde House. One senator argued that “chartering [Hyde House] would push the conversation around Duke's social scene further away from improving independent housing.” Hyde House is a perfect example of how to improve independent housing! If we had a variety of SSGs to accompany our many SLGs and Greek organizations, then Duke would feature an array of social organizations unrivaled at most colleges. Yet the Housing Reform movement proposes we shun that which makes Duke unique—our diversified housing system—in favor of a crude imitation of the housing systems of Harvard, Yale, and the Ivy League. So much for the “Duke Difference.”  

Admittedly, the existence of selective social groups necessitates that some students will be left out (I should know, my freshman rush was unsuccessful). But before lamenting the plight of independents, remember that some people genuinely prefer to be unaffiliated. And for those who do not, we owe them serious action. We need to make selective groups more accessible by increasing their numbers. Duke should allow for the creation of as many SLGs, Greek organizations, SSGs, and any other social organizations that students innovate. They should be chartered with great efficiency. Finally, either through administration policy, or through the individual selective groups themselves, we must ensure that financial limitations do not inhibit the social opportunities of low-SES students.  

My challenge is this: if “diversity is our strength,” then we should act like it. If we claim to value diversity, then we should be comfortable with the product of diverse people making different social choices according to their preference. Our commitment to student diversity cannot be merely ornamental, it must be actual. It is not enough that people of all colors, creeds and backgrounds exist at Duke; we must also allow them to express that diversity in their social arrangements and choices. The diversity of Duke’s students must be matched by the diversity of social organizations available. The power to shape Duke society should be in the hands of students, not algorithms and administrators.

Reiss Becker is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. 


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