Res halls epicenter of diversity debate

BY EMILY KRAACK
and Samantha Lehto
Published March 23, 2005

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding race-conscious admissions policies at the University, a new issue is starting to draw attention back to the University’s atmosphere for underrepresented minority students.

Ken Srdjak
Students gather in the Mary Markley cafeteria for dinner. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

While minorities are overrepresented in most residence halls on campus, the disproportionately high black population on North Campus raises questions about whether the University’s goal of diversity is met in its housing facilities. Underrepresented minority students include black, Latino and Native American students. Asian students, who are not considered underrepresented, also show varying patterns of representation throughout the residence halls.

About 11 percent of the North Campus population is black, compared to between 8 and 9 percent of students living in dorms on Central Campus and the Hill.

Students and administrators who work closely with minority students say this phenomenon is due to the fact that a critical mass of minority students has not yet been reached at the University as a whole. The term critical mass refers to the size of the minority student population on campus needed to create a comfortable atmosphere for other minorities.

Patricia Pacania, director of the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, said she thinks the University still does not have a large enough population of minority students to achieve a critical mass. Pacania said this creates a need for minority students to self-segregate in residence halls and said she thinks the University should allow this clustering to happen. “To just sprinkle students in dorms, knowing that we have not achieved that critical mass … I don’t think that that’s effective,” she said.

But University President Mary Sue Coleman said that while she understands the desire of minority students to live together, she believes a more diverse living experience is desirable.

“I would think that one of the huge values of being in a University setting is being able to get acquainted with people from a different background or different race, and I encourage students to really pursue that. I think it’s important. It’s one of the great things we offer at the University of Michigan,” she said. “I would hope that we can continue to find ways to get to people to mix themselves up.”

Pacania said she worries that spreading minority students throughout all the dorms, rather than allowing them to form communities, would “add another set of stress upon students of color.”

“I think to primarily look to students of color to say ‘educate me’ is an unfair burden, and I don’t think that’s something we as a University should ask of students,” she said. “And students of color also need opportunities to have a living space where they don’t feel like they always have to educate other people or don’t have to always justify themselves or explain themselves.”

Housing spokesman Alan Levy said the process of housing application and assignment is done without racial information, meaning the uneven distribution of minorities in the dorms is not a product of the housing assignment process. He suggested that certain residence halls, especially those on North Campus, have a high satisfaction rate and a high rate of return. He said black students are very likely to return to North Campus housing because “it’s a positive, welcoming environment.” He added that parental influence to return to residence halls might play a part as well.

University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the lack of black fraternities who have houses also cuts down on off-campus housing choices for black students.

Many black students living on North Campus say they intentionally moved or requested housing there because of North Campus’s reputation for being a good place for black students.

Engineering freshman Kyra Watts said she felt good about living on North Campus because of the large black population. “When I first got here, people said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine — all the black people live on North Campus.’”

Other students say they appreciate the close community but worry about the negative effects of self-isolation. LSA sophomore Ashley Stokes, who is black, said she wanted to live in Baits because of the suite-style room layout, but also because of the large black community. “It’s positive in the social aspect, but as far as diversity goes, the negative comes in because (black students) are used to being around our own.”

Administrators who work with the minority community say they worry about the geographic isolation of black students on North Campus. Pacania said she has heard from students living on North Campus that they feel isolated from activities and resources on Central Campus. “Sometimes you have students … who seek out those opportunities,” she said. “(But) I think it’s harder for the students who don’t have that opportunity, or maybe their style isn’t as outgoing, so it’s harder for them to know the resources on campus, especially Central Campus.”

Another factor that plays into the uneven distribution among dorms involves the nine residential Michigan Learning Communities, which house members together in certain residence halls. Some MLCs make diversity a key goal in recruiting — for instance, the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program and the Health Science Scholars Program, both housed in Alice Lloyd Residence Hall, use race as a factor in reviewing applications to the programs. Despite Alice Lloyd Hall’s reputation for housing mostly white students from the East Coast, the dorm is actually home to one of the most concentrated minority populations on campus. Both LHSP and HSSP house a disproportionately high number of minority students, contributing to Alice Lloyd’s overall high concentration of minority students.

The Honors Program, which has received criticism in the past for its low enrollment of underrepresented minority students, stands out as having the opposite effect on minority representation. Honors houses 405 students, only 23 of whom are underrepresented minorities. This means roughly 5 percent of Honors housing is underrepresented minorities, whereas 14 percent of non-Honors students in South Quad are minority students. Honors is the only learning community which invites students into the program rather than requiring an essay or application.

Members of the Michigan Student Assembly say they are also concerned about the large black community on North Campus and worry that it represents a “de facto segregation.” RC junior Ryan Bates, co-chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, said he is working with Melton Lee of the Minority Affairs Commission to track trends in minority housing through the past two decades. He said they have not been able to get University statistics for more than the past two years, but that “anecdotally, having talked to minority peer advisors and other people involved in those sorts of communities, there has historically been segregation on campus.”

Bates said he is not sure which policies create the racial divisions, or if the University even consciously perpetuates them. “It looks like there are definite disparities in University policies which conflict with their stated commitment to diversity,” Bates said. “I’m not ready to say whether this is intentional, or just a structural thing.”

He added that MSA will be calling on administrators to change any relevant policies to diminish the disparities once they have finished looking into the situation. “If it’s presented to the University by the students ... the University must act,” he said. “If those demands are not met, the University is guilty of a much greater sin of perpetuating structural racism.”

-Aymar Jean contributed to this report.