ITHACA, N.Y. — Xiomara Padamsee says it's important for Latino students at Cornell University here to have a place like the Latino Living Center, where they can relax amid familiar language, music, and food.
The center is what Cornell calls a "program house," a dormitory with a theme that expands an academic area of interest beyond the classroom and into students' daily lives. Some of the houses, like the Latino Living Center, are ethnically based.
"[Students] come up to Cornell, and it's really like culture shock that they're such a minority," says Ms. Padamsee, who will be a senior next year.
She points out that a lot of Latino students at Cornell come from areas where all of the people around them are Latino. "And there is still a lot of ignorance on Cornell's campus."
Padamsee, who helped found the center, sees such ethnically oriented houses as a positive force in minority students' lives. Other supporters see the dorms as a base from which to deal with the pressures of being a distinct minority in a new and competitive environment. They say such housing can help minority students establish their identity and resist pressure to assimilate to the majority culture.
But the houses have become increasingly controversial, at Cornell and elsewhere. Critics say ethnic houses in particular contribute to de facto segregation on some American college campuses, encouraging stereotypes and undermining the role college plays in broadening students' horizons.
Indeed, Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., has decided to move in the opposite direction as Cornell by abolishing all student choice in housing next fall. A faculty committee recommended random housing assignments because of concern about student self-segregation by race as well as by academic or athletic interests.
The issue of program houses heated up this past year at Cornell when the new president, Hunter Rawlings, proposed not allowing freshman students to live in the 10 program houses. At one point, Mr. Rawlings had talked about a moratorium on new program houses.
Students held protests, including a rally with black leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton. And 15 students held an eight-day hunger strike.
Rawlings ended up not taking any recommendations on the issue of the program houses to the university's board of trustees in May. Discussion on the subject will be taken up in the fall, says Jacquie Powers, a university spokeswoman.
Rawlings' proposal is "absolutely not" an attempt to phase out program houses, says Ms. Powers. Rawlings wants freshmen to have a wide variety of experiences, she says.
But Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, has called for abolishing the houses, arguing that the dorms are paternalistic and racist. He filed a discrimination complaint in March with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights about the Latino Living Center and Ujamaa, an African living center.
Mr. Meyers says that the dorms encourage a double standard. When the university accepts "with obscene haste" demands for treating people differently on the basis of race, that has to be motivated by something other than the standards of intellectual rigor, he says.
"Would they accept the demand for the white students who wanted a white dorm?" he asks.
Meyers unsuccessfully pursued a similar complaint about a year and a half ago with the New York State Education Department and the Board of Regents.
The US Department of Education doesn't identify who files complaints, but the department is investigating a complaint about living facilities allegedly separated by race at Cornell, says Rodger Murphey, a spokesman with the department.
Meyers, who is black, attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which also had a black dormitory. Meyers doesn't believe in racial segregation and challenged the dorm even then, he says.
"I think segregation does great harm, because it postpones and delays the opportunity to get to know people without regard to their race or their background," Meyers says.
"For many students, the college experience is the first and only opportunity to do that," he adds.
Cornell disputes Meyers' claim that program houses are racist, Powers says, adding that members of all races are invited to participate in program houses.
"The selection process is not at all based on race," Powers says. But, she adds, it is true that by self-selection, the majority of residents in the three ethnically based houses are minority students.
In an attempt to ease the transition from home to Cornell, which can be overwhelming at first to many students, Rawlings has suggested a pilot course this fall called Cornell 101, according to Powers. Some freshmen have been invited to participate in small seminars, which are designed to help the students get to know the campus and each other.
The idea is to have students start together and to introduce them to the whole campus, Powers says. In this way, the students won't immediately break into splinter groups, which go beyond race.
For Charles Willie, a professor of education and urban studies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, the issue is whether the university is meeting its general responsibility to have a policy that doesn't allow any group to withdraw and reject others who want to affiliate with them.
Program houses can be of great benefit if they aren't exclusive, Professor Willie says. Each group, he points out - whether they are Latino, Anglo, or African-American - has found a solution to problems in social living that, ideally, they can share with others.
Cornell is self-segregated on a social level, which is common at American universities, says Julie Chon, a junior elected to serve on Cornell's board of trustees. For instance, different racial groups eat with each other in the dining hall.
Ms. Chon compares the groups to high school theater or athletic cliques, which are based on students' different interests.
"I think it's important also for all students to make efforts to reach out to people who are unlike them, but not at the cost of their own identity," Chon says.