As Students Choose Mirror-Image Roommates Online, Maureen Dowd Decries ‘Diminished Debate Syndrome’ on Campus

August 13, 2010

In Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times, an excellent column by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd laments a depressing trend on campus—the use of online roommate-matching services by incoming freshmen—and insightfully links this development to what she terms the "diminished debate syndrome" on campus.

But before we get to Dowd’s column, let’s review the article in last week’s Wall Street Journal that prompted her observations. The Journal reported on how new students are relying on detailed information gleaned from social networking sites to determine their perceived compatability with their future roommates, even before they’ve arrived on campus:

This online scouting-and the judgments students make based on what they see-are dramatically changing the time-honored college practice of learning to live with a stranger freshman year.

Many schools see assigned roommates as a chance for students to learn to get along with different types of people as they’re forced to negotiate everything from who gets the top bunk to varying ideas about politics and religion. And many student deans and admissions officers view online roommate screening as a threat to all that.

Droves of parents have been calling to complain to colleges and universities, often demanding to change their children’s roommates based on information discovered online. Schools generally will not change room assignments, aside from rare exceptions for issues of safety, says Greg Victory, who oversees freshman orientation at Syracuse University.

Because new students—and their parents—are increasingly rejecting the idea of living with someone who might be (gasp!) too different from themselves, some schools have disappointingly decided to accommodate this sad aversion to the unfamiliar:

This summer, for the first time, incoming [University of Florida] students could use a Facebook application called RoomBug to connect with others seeking roommates, letting them gauge each other’s neatness, sleep schedules and other cohabitation essentials, as well as general interests. Students who found a match could then request to room together.

More than a quarter of the 5,179 incoming freshmen who will live on campus have signed up, Mr. Logan says. While the final data won’t be available until all the rooms are assigned, he expects more mutually requested roommates than in the past.

Erica Steele, an 18-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, who is about to be a freshman at Bowling Green State University, says she signed onto a website that promises to gauge students’ compatibility as roommates, URoomSurf, because she was nervous about living with a stranger. She met Katelyn DeVore, 18, of Van Buren, Ohio, who was 95% compatible based on the website’s survey, which asks about neatness, hygiene and sleep cycle as well as politics, religion and sexual orientation. The women agreed to live together, but not before they also met in person.

But not every school is willing to grant its new students a preemptive roommate veto:

Syracuse University, where roommates are assigned at random, deliberately sends out its roommate notices electronically at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon so that people have the weekend to cool off before they call to complain, Mr. [Greg] Victory [who oversees freshman orientation at Syracuse University] says.

"Now that it’s so easy to make judgments about everything from sexual orientation to musical taste, there’s more opportunity for students to say ‘I’m not going to like this person’ without ever having a conversation," Mr. Victory says.

It’s Victory’s last point that’s particularly worrying: Abetted by the wealth of personal information available online, students appear to feel increasingly justified in preemptively shutting out prospective roommates who don’t sufficiently align with their own tastes and beliefs. And with colleges like the University of Florida enabling this kind of sheltered tribalism via programs like RoomBug, students can all but ensure that their would-be roommate will share their worldview-losing the chance to be challenged by someone new and different. Late-night roommate debates will suffer for it, or maybe vanish completely. What’s left to debate when your roommate already agrees with you about everything?

Indeed, Maureen Dowd thinks this indulgence of sameness accomplishes precisely the opposite of the kind of personal, emotional, and intellectual growth colleges are uniquely equipped to enable. After recounting some very funny stories of her own interactions with college roommates, she writes: 

Choosing roommates who are mirror images may fit with our narcissistic and microtargeted society, but it retards creativity and social growth. This reluctance to mix it up also has been reflected in the lack of full-throated political and cultural debates on campuses (as opposed to ersatz debates on cable TV), replaced by a quiet P.C. acceptance of differing views or an obnoxious stereotyping of anyone different.

We at FIRE couldn’t agree more with Dowd. We have a saying here: If you graduate from college without having been offended or having your viewpoint challenged once over those four years, you should ask for a refund. Unfortunately, students are too often coming down with what Dowd labels "diminished debate syndrome," refusing to check out of an echo chamber of their own design. That universities are helping them do so is a dereliction of duty.

Dowd concludes with some advice to the freshmen who will arrive at campuses across the country in the next few weeks:

As you leave behind high school to redefine and even reinvent yourself as [an] adult, you need exposure to an array of different ideas, backgrounds and perspectives – not a cordon of clones.

College is not only where you hit the books. It also should be where you learn not to judge a book by its cover.

Again, we couldn’t agree more.