Opinion: Fostering Community on College Campuses

By Calum Anderson ’73

The purpose of this essay is to suggest a refinement of Gettysburg College’s housing policy that would enhance learning, community, and relationships including advancing the College’s commitment to achieving an inclusive campus. In that regard, I suggest that the College consider increasing on-campus housing and limiting special interest housing that results in self-segregation. This is a complex and delicate issue. However, it is an important issue and one which should elicit thoughtful discussion.

One of the great benefits of a residential college is the out-of-class interactions among students— most notably in residences and dining halls but, actually, across the entire campus. Off-campus housing isolates students and does not foster interaction or community. Many elite colleges and universities have made this observation and have eliminated or minimized off-campus housing. One study on the benefits of on-campus living concluded that “living on campus will maximize opportunities for social, cultural, and extracurricular involvement, and this increased involvement will account for residential living’s impact on various indices of student development.” Another study emphasized the importance of proximity and its accompanying benefits, stating that on-campus students’ lives are enriched “simply by virtue of eating, sleeping, and spending their waking hours on the college campus”. Harvard College is very keen on designing its campus to foster interaction, even down to the design of its walkways. Harvard refers to its Residential House system (where 98% of its students live) as a “cornerstone” of the undergraduate experience. Dickinson College has recently announced its decision to eliminate off-campus housing and, in that regard, recently built a new 129-student residence hall. According to Dickinson officials “Dickinson is committed to enhancing the whole student experience, which includes opportunities to learn and engage out of the classroom. The new residence hall – and the intentionality of its design – underscores that commitment.”

To its great credit, Gettysburg College recognizes that “a residential college best promotes the sense of community, central to a liberal arts education, in which personal relationships between students, faculty, and staff can flourish” and that “[a]t the heart of the mission of Gettysburg College is the fact that we are residential campus.” To achieve this goal, Gettysburg should consider shedding motel, apartment and special interest style housing and constructing community­ enhancing dormitories on campus.

Another benefit of on-campus housing is advancing the College’s goal of creating an authentically diverse and inclusive campus. Many elite colleges, including Harvard, design the composition of the on-campus housing to reflect the diversity of the college. Most students come from fairly homogeneous communities, whether they be urban, suburban or rural. For most students, college represents the student’s first real opportunity to reside, eat, study and learn with people of different socioeconomic, racial or ethnic backgrounds. Colleges work hard to recruit a diverse student body but, if students self-segregate once they get to campus, the benefit of that diversity is greatly diminished.

Consider examples of several peer colleges’ efforts to integrate their campuses.

In 2008, when Bates College was planning a new dining hall, it asked the students whether they preferred one large dining hall or two smaller dining halls located in different parts of the campus. Each option had pros and cons. However, the students voted in favor of one dining hall that would bring the entire campus together several times a day. Astutely, the students saw the benefit of bringing a diverse community into one dining place. In contrast, Colby College has several dining halls. When asked whether there were differences between the dining halls, a Colby student tour guide stated that dining hall “A” was where the athletes ate, and dining hall “B” was frequented by the “artsy” students. That is exactly the outcome that the Bates students were seeking to avoid.

Bowdoin College recently made advances in integrating students from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Bowdoin used to offer “substance-free” dorms which resulted in unintended segregation. The students who chose to live in the substance-free dorms thought the “regular” dorms were like Sodom and Gomorrah and the students in the regular dorms thought that the students in substance-free dorms were all socially awkward nerds. Of course, neither stereotype was accurate. While that, in itself, was regrettable, when the administration dug deeper, they discovered that the students who chose substance-free dorms were disproportionately from inner cities and rural Maine. After consideration of the resulting unintended socioeconomic and racial segregation in the dorms, Bowdoin chose to integrate the substance-free students into the regular dorms.

Gettysburg College should consider these ideas when considering its policy toward “special interest” houses as residences. There are many good things about special interest houses. Students like being with similarly-minded people. It is comfortable. However, a residential system that includes numerous special interest houses can have unintended negative consequences. Twenty-two (22) special interest houses have a tendency to balkanize the campus. It also results in creating insular environments where people are only reinforcing their own worldview and not exposing themselves to alternative ways of thinking. Special interest houses can have a way of filtering out opposing opinions and creating an “echo chamber” that reinforces the human tendency towards confirmation bias. Research done at the University of Colorado indicates that people’s views become more polarized when exchanging views with like-minded people. Cass Sunstein and Noam Chomsky have both observed that when people interact with like-minded people, their views become more extreme. Sunstein has also observed that the tendency to interact with only like-minded people has deleterious effects on democracy: “We need a deliberative democracy – one in which people deliberate with people who are unlike themselves and learn from them… We need serendipitous encounters with people and ideas that we would not choose to engage.” While clubs and societies can offer people of similar interests an opportunity to explore and share those interests, residential living grounded in a special interest, is a bridge too far. Offering or promoting opportunities for self-segregated housing is not an inclusive or democratizing strategy.

I realize that this is a huge, expensive, and long-term undertaking. However, it would profoundly enhance numerous dimensions of the student experience and the long-term future of the College.

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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