MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- For a peek at campus-style racial reality today, there's probably no better place to look than Wesleyan University.
While the student body is diverse and seems free of racial discord, Wesleyan has officially acknowledged the obvious -- that some minority students would simply rather have their own place to call home.
The result is a hodgepodge of special campus residences geared to black, Latino, gay, Jewish and Asian-American students, as well as female students of color.
Universities across the country -- from elite East Coast institutions such as Cornell to public campuses such as Arizona State, but none in Maryland -- have established residences geared to minorities.
Supporters say such housing strengthens racial groups on campuses where they are vastly outnumbered by the white majority.
"I live there because I want to be around other black students," Wesleyan sophomore Dallas Glenn says of the Malcolm X House, home to 26 black students. "It's not a need to separate from white students. It's to be closer to other black students."
Although students on most campuses tend to eat, study and socialize with people from the same racial background, many in academia are asking if it's healthy for universities to go one step further and set up housing based on race.
College, they say, is supposed to immerse students in the world's diversity, not consign them to their own enclaves. Ethnically oriented housing, while well-intentioned, only fragments campuses that are already politically charged by racial issues, they say.
Even the "Doonesbury" comic strip weighed in recently, suggesting that some campuses working to make minority students more comfortable are, in the process, simply drifting back toward the bad old days of segregation.
"I have the deepest reservation about the increasing tendency within the campus to define ourselves in terms of groups or factions," Cornell President Frank H. T. Rhodes said recently, explaining his decision to veto a special house for gay and lesbian students to go along with existing dorms for American Indian and black students.
"I would express this same view if presented with requests for similar living units from other racial, religious, ethnic or special interest groups."
Seven students live in the wood-frame, Asian/Asian-American House on the outskirts of the Wesleyan campus. The house has a kitchen, but the students share few communal meals. A planned library devoted to Asian-American issues is just a shelf with a few books on a stairway landing.
A campus stereotype that students in the house are immersed and knowledgeable in Asian-American issues is not true. Rather, says Katherine Chan, a junior, the house is simply a home for seven students who are trying to learn more about their heritage.
"We're all coming from different backgrounds," says Ms. Chan, 20. "It's important for us to be able to explore our Asian backgrounds."
While all campus housing is technically open to all students, most of the ethnically designated housing does not attract outsiders as residents. The Asian house residents, in fact, were worried earlier this year about who might fill a vacancy there.
"To us, it was very, very important that all the house members were Asian or Asian-American," Ms. Chan said.
At the other end of campus sits Malcolm X House, a two-story brick and cinder block building. Except for the oversize, 20-year-old murals of Malcolm X in the hallways, it is your basic homely dormitory, with communal bathrooms and cramped bedrooms.
The house was founded more than 20 years ago, in the wake of racial problems on the newly integrated campus. These days, there are few in-house programs that center on African-American issues, although some of its 26 residents say they would like to do more of that. Most outside students visit the house only for parties, which draw large, multi-racial crowds to the basement lounge.
Malcolm X mostly provides a refuge for black students who may feel overwhelmed on the predominantly white campus.
"The house is where I can be myself," says freshman Semeka Smith, 18. "I don't feel like I have to act a certain way."
"There are some students who feel the need to escape and retreat into a safe environment, to get refreshed and re-energized before they go back into the world," says Frank A. Tuitt, Wesleyan's housing director.
Trying to ease friction
An hour north of Wesleyan, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has special housing geared to blacks and Latinos, gays and lesbians, American Indians and international students. The housing, which may just be one floor of a dormitory, serves as a partial antidote to racial problems that have sporadically plagued the sprawling, 23,000-student campus.
In the spring of 1992, for example, students took over the campus newspaper to protest what they said was inadequate coverage of minorities. Other racial incidents prompted a series of demonstrations last year, including several protests after epithets were scrawled outside a black student's dorm room.
In such a highly charged atmosphere, campus administrators are reluctant to publicize the racially oriented housing for fear of being ridiculed for excessive political correctness by conservative media commentators.
"Everybody here, from administrators to students, has been burned by the media," says Karin Sherbin, a university spokeswoman.
Many minority students, though, eagerly defend special accommodations geared to them.
Claudia Ortiz, a 20-year-old of Dominican heritage, lived her freshman year in a big UMass dormitory that was overwhelmingly white. This year she is living in Gorman Hall, one of two so-called "nuance" dorms that are deliberately well-integrated.
"I feel more comfortable with diverse people," Ms. Ortiz says. "I didn't really have much in common with white people. It's like two different worlds."
Jonathan Koop, a Hispanic student, says it's "natural" that some minority students choose to live with people of similar backgrounds.
"People of color who choose to live together with other people of color should have that chance," Mr. Koop says. "If that's going to make the larger white community feel threatened, that's their issue."
Mr. Koop could be referring to Josh Fox. Mr. Fox, a 21-year-old white senior, says ethnically oriented housing contributes to the problems at UMass, which he says is "absolutely fragmented" racially.
"Most of these minority groups on campus say they want to be treated equally," says Mr. Fox, sipping coffee in front of his fraternity house one recent morning. "I think they should stop trying to separate themselves. That's what upsets people. People are sometimes threatened by it."
Fears of isolation
Many minority students, of course, choose not to live in the racially designated housing. Some say such arrangements isolate them from the community at large. Others worry that residents of such housing face excessive pressure to become politically active.
Dorian Johnson, a 20-year-old junior at Wesleyan, passed up living in Malcolm X House.
"I grew up in Hartford, in a predominantly black setting, so I didn't need to be surrounded with black people for cultural enlightenment," says Dorian Johnson, a 20-year-old Wesleyan junior. "For people who went to [mostly white] prep schools, it might be really important."
Jennifer Lau, a Wesleyan sophomore, opted to live in an off-campus house with an ethnically diverse group of students after a year in a dormitory. While she likes the idea of the special-interest housing, she says, "My friends were so different that they wouldn't have been in one house."
White Wesleyan students seem to casually accept Malcolm X and similar residences.
"Philosophically, if you asked people if they support the idea of racial segregated housing, they're going to say no," says Rick Meyerson, a co-editor of the Argus, the Wesleyan student newspaper. "But if you show them Malcolm X House and showed them how it worked, people don't really have a problem with it."
Mark Puzella, a white Wesleyan senior, takes a pragmatic view of campus life.
"If people want to live together, let 'em live together," says Mr. Puzella. "Integration in a dormitory doesn't necessarily mean there will be productive interaction. The freshmen halls, where they just stick people together, can be as polarized as the rest of campus."
Many campuses still reject any movement toward racially oriented housing.
The University of Michigan, for example, has none, although the campus has set up nine special "multicultural" dormitory lounges for minority students.
"We represent the Michigan experience as being one marked by diversity and exposure to people of all kinds," says Alan Levy, a Michigan housing official.
Yale and Harvard, modeled after English universities, each have 12 residential colleges or houses, where most students live for all four years of college.
Princeton University assigns all freshmen and sophomores to residential colleges within the university and has no racially designated living arrangements.
"There's a real effort to try and maintain communities that are fairly well representative of all the folks on campus," says Justin Harmon, a Princeton spokesman.
Campuses have a strong incentive to set up special housing for minority and other student groups -- empty dormitory rooms.
"Special purpose housing makes sense in an environment where people are trying to market their products like never before," says Gary J. Schwarzmueller, executive director of the national organization of campus housing officers. "Enrollments have fallen so much at institutions, the demand for housing has fallen."
Maryland resists trend
The idea of racially oriented housing has not caught on yet in Maryland.
Freeman A. Hrabowski 3rd, the black president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said he would have a "problem" with establishing any racially oriented housing.
"There are times when students of one race may be together, and there's nothing wrong with that," says Dr. Hrabowski. "But we want our students to learn how to be comfortable with people who are different than themselves."
While the debate goes on, perhaps there's a lesson in last year's survey of Wesleyan students.
Asked about their satisfaction with their living arrangements, residents of the campus' "intercultural" house -- a newly established, well-integrated home to about 40 students -- reported the highest level of satisfaction.
As housing officer Frank Tuitt put it: "Intercultural House was at the top of the charts, by far. It was just stunning to see."