I toured Oberlin College today with a friend and his son, a high school senior looking for a place to study science. For someone who has spent most of his time on the campuses of research universities, I was struck by how the students talked about their professors as accessible, dedicated to their learning, and “the best thing about Oberlin.” At MIT and Harvard, for example, professors are generally rather remote figures from the perspective of an undergraduate. With some help from Mindy the Crippler we met with a wide range of students and all spoke positively about their experience at Oberlin.
I was also struck when the student guide told us about a dormitory with an African heritage theme and specializing in serving “soul food” (link). She also mentioned a “Third World House” where “people of color” and “of low socioeconomic status” could live (link). It seemed odd that a college administration could set up places like this. Suppose that the school put out a Web page saying that “70 percent of our students are white and from wealthy families. Despite their stacks of cashmere sweaters, they wouldn’t feel comfortable living with anyone who was poor or black. So we’d appreciate it if students with darker skin or without a closet full of designer outfits would please move into Third World House or Soul Food Dorm.” If it wouldn’t be okay to do that, why is it okay to have the houses at all? Does having the best and most inclusive intentions make it okay to do something that might otherwise appear racist and classist?
[Separately, we learned about a house for women and transgender students (link) and talked to a young woman who’d applied to live there. She explained that it was open to anyone who had female chromosomes and identified as “female” and also anyone who was transgender. The only students to whom the living group was closed were males who identified as “male.”]