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Dorms and Diversity

September 15, 1997



Their numbers are small, but their complaint is big. Five Orthodox Jewish students are challenging Yale University's requirement that all freshmen and sophomores live on campus. They say the alcohol, shared bathroom facilities, and sexual activity prevalent in the co-ed dorms clash with their religion's rules of privacy, modesty, and sexual abstinence until marriage. They want out of the requirement; Yale says no.

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The debate, in some ways, echoes one that's been going on for a few years at schools like Cornell and Harvard, where many of the student residences are "theme" or "program" dorms, some based on ethnicity or race. Supporters say a house primarily for French speakers, for example, fosters greater learning. And a dorm comprising mostly Hispanics, for instance, often is the place where those students feel most comfortable on an unfamiliar campus. But critics of the dorms argue that they lead to self-segregation, or at the very least do nothing to broaden students' horizons.

Broadening students' horizons - that's the reason administrators at Yale give for having students live together for the first two years at the university. And it's a sound one. College often is the first time students encounter and live with people of different backgrounds, philosophies, or race. That's not always easy - but it can be an important part of the college experience and certainly is good preparation for life after graduation.

On the other hand, the five students have a valid complaint. They are not asking that a special dorm be built just for them. They simply say they should not be subjected to the lifestyle that prevails in the dorms. In the past, many Orthodox Jewish students at Yale have paid for a room on campus, as they are required to do, while also paying rent for off-campus housing, where they actually lived. The university's policies should not impose this burden.

Yale administrators should turn their live-on-campus requirement into a live-on-campus suggestion. Quite likely, a majority of freshmen and sophomores would take them up on it. Most new students want to immerse themselves in campus life, and living in a dorm is a good way to do it.

Yale, and other colleges, should establish more alcohol-free dorms, or single-sex floors, where the rules are clear and the students who choose to live there want to abide by them. It's highly probable that the Orthodox Jewish students at Yale aren't the only ones who feel uncomfortable living in dorms that sometimes seem more like the worst of fraternity houses.

Traditional dorm life has its benefits, but it isn't for every student. College can mean different things to different people. Schools should be flexible enough to recognize that.