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Mills: Colleges should rethink roommates

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is writing a book about the Army-Navy game of 1964.

 

Colleges are sending out acceptances to high school seniors across the country this month. The letters are coming just as the college story everyone's talking about is the guilty verdict of Dharun Ravi, who was charged with invasion of privacy and bias intimidation for using a webcam to spy on his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, having sex with a man.

Ravi was the roommate from hell. The idea that he was just being mischievous with his webcam defies common sense. After streaming Clementi's encounter, Ravi sent out tweets that bragged about his spying. Ravi's aim wasn't to prank his roommate. It was to humiliate him.

Had he known that Clementi would commit suicide after learning about the incidents, it's reasonable to think Ravi wouldn't have been so cruel. But that's hardly a saving distinction. Ravi knew that he was making a pariah of Clementi, and he knew he was capitalizing on anti-gay sentiment. Had Clementi been with a female student, he would have been admired by Ravi and his pals. Ravi, in turn, would have been accused of turning a hookup into porn by his actions.

The discussion has now turned to what sort of sentence and consequences for Ravi are fair. He isn't a violent criminal, and he has his whole life ahead of him. But we ought not to let the case end by looking solely at Ravi. There are broader issues at stake, going right down to campus roommate policies.

The Ravi case throws into question the common college practice of asking students who do not know each other to spend a year together as roommates. A recent profile by Ian Parker in the New Yorker made it painfully clear that Ravi and Clementi were ill-suited to live together in close quarters.

Colleges justify doubling and tripling students up in dorm rooms as an important life experience. But the primary beneficiaries are the colleges themselves, which save on housing costs.

Visit any first-year college dorm room shared by two or three students -- where beds, desks and clothes closets barely leave breathing space -- and you're astonished that no one has organized a protest. Even for the most obliging students, finding a way to live in such cramped accommodations is an ordeal.

What happens when one student wants to study late and another doesn't? Who decides when the lights go off? As for romance, the old towel-on-the-door sign to keep out is a well-known warning, but it also means a roommate is "sexiled" from space he or she has paid for. Indeed, while it is no excuse for what he did, Ravi had been asked by Clementi to absent himself from their room before the two spying incidents.

As a college teacher worried by how expensive college education is these days, I am all for colleges saving wherever they can. I'm also aware that colleges try to get their students compatible roommates. It is common for colleges to ask first-year students to fill out elaborate questionnaires and then try to match them with someone like-minded.

But these good-faith efforts are beside the point. They are bound to fail at least as often as not, and what follows is a diminished educational experience in which everything from a student's studying to socializing is adversely affected.

Finding a cure for the roommate situation is not rocket science. My faculty office, previously a room for a single student, shows the way. It is 9 by 13 feet, and it saves the college money by sharing an adjoining bathroom. The result is I, like the student who previously lived here, enjoy privacy and the freedom to come and go without accounting to anyone else.

Making such modest, single rooms the norm for all first-year students would be very costly at my school and others across the country. It can't be done overnight. But it can be done over time, especially if adding humane dorm space is made a college fundraising priority.

Meanwhile, for starters, colleges can at least admit that the arguments they give for turning strangers into roommates in spaces too cramped for privacy are a crock. Campuses and classrooms already provide ample opportunities for "important life experiences."

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