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Out of the comfort zone

UMass-Amherst moves to limit self-segregated living

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about moves to limit self-segregated living quarters at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst misidentified a retired chancellor. He is Randolph Bromery.)

AMHERST -- At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students have nicknames for their residence halls. The Northeast cluster is ''Chinatown," a reference to its large Asian population. Southwest is dubbed the ''Projects," a reference, offensive to some, to its concentration of African-American students.

This pronounced division by race and ethnicity is a function of student choice but also university policy, which designates some residence hall floors for minority students as a means of providing comfort and comradeship on an overwhelmingly white campus.

Now, in a major shift, administration officials are seeking to eliminate self-segregated living quarters, the latest and perhaps most delicate effort by UMass-Amherst to phase out separate programs for minorities.

''There's nothing healthy about segregation," said Michael Gargano, vice chancellor of student affairs and campus life. ''Students who come to the university need to be exposed to different opinions and ideas. When you have segregated pockets in our residence halls, we are allowing students to shut themselves off, and then they are missing out."

This fall, there will be no floors set aside for minority students when an 860-bed cluster of residence halls opens. The university also plans to discourage students from grounding their housing choices in a desire to live with students of like race or ethnicity. Instead, students may choose to live with others who share their academic interests. For example, students pursuing African-American studies could choose to live together.

Also, the university will require freshmen to live with other freshmen, meaning that for at least one year out of four, students will be required to live in racially integrated dorms.

Across the nation, universities and colleges are struggling with whether minority students should be allowed or encouraged to live together. Some schools continue to embrace self-segregated living quarters as an answer. For example, at the University of California, Berkeley, administrators in 1998 created minority floors when the number of students of color dropped in response to Proposition 209, which ended race-conscious admissions in California's public institutions.

Others are questioning the approach. At UMass, the move to desegregate housing follows the dismantling of some other race-based programs. In the past five years, the school has stopped holding separate orientations for minorities and assigning them to separate academic advising offices.

The housing shift is more complex, UMass administrators say, because it cannot be accomplished with a simple administrative order. What they can do is remove barriers and hope that students, of all backgrounds, opt to live with one another.

''We are dealing with separation caused by self-selection," Gargano said.

For some, living among students of like backgrounds has proved a source of strength as they seek to navigate a campus of 18,500 undergraduates where just 16 percent are minorities. Moreover, the university is in a town where some 80 percent of residents are white, which leads to feelings of isolation for some minority students.

''We are like family!" said Nisha Mungroo, 19, a sophomore, as she slung her arms around two roommates. Their dorm room is on the floor designated for African-American students called Harambee, a Swahili term meaning ''the point at which all things come together."

The three roommates, in fact, have divergent backgrounds. Mungroo -- whose parents are from Trinidad and Guyana -- grew up in mostly white West Hartford. Her roommates, who are black, grew up in Boston -- Bianca Wynn, 22, in Hyde Park, and Stephanie Jean-Jacques. 21, in Dorchester.

Still, they say, their similarities are greater than their differences, and the shared experience of being a minority on the Amherst campus makes for a compelling bond. They say they breathe a sigh of relief when at the end of the day they return to Harambee -- where a mural of black historical figures greets them on the 22d floor.

''You come here and find comfort in your community," Mungroo said. ''Then you find comfort at UMass."

Wynn said, ''I don't mean to sound racist, or anything, but I want to be around people who can relate to me and who have common interests."

For much of the school's history, minorities made up just a sliver of the student body: In 1967, the campus counted 36 AfricanAmerican students; in 1972, just 109 African-Americans had graduated since the school's opening in 1867, said Ralph Bromery, a retired UMass-Amherst chancellor.

The first significant number of minority students, a cluster of 138 African-Americans and Latinos, were recruited to the school in 1968. That year, administrators opted to house the minority students in one dormitory complex.

Bromery said that the clustering was intended to be temporary and that he and other architects had hoped students would quickly meld into the campus population and, as upperclassmen, live among white students.

''I am an integrationist," Bromery said in a telephone interview. ''I supported people mingling together, learning each others' mores and learning from each other's cultures."

UMass officials cannot pinpoint the year that the race- and ethnicity-based floors formed, but said it was clear that by the 1980s, the pendulum had swung toward greater separation at UMass, particularly as racial tensions spiraled after the beating in 1986 of Yancey Robinson, an African-American student from Springfield, after a World Series game.

The residential floors for minority students, administrators say, were at the initiation of students, who clustered in certain dorms and then agitated for formal recognition of the floors.

Today there are residential clusters dedicated to students of Asian, African-American, and Native American backgrounds, and one dedicated to students seeking a multicultural experience.

On the campus -- a sprawling place where residence hall clusters tend to be a drive away from one another -- there is no mistaking the distinct racial and ethnic identities of the clusters.

Anton Pires, a freshman studying political science, said he lived in Southwest for a semester, but transferred to another residence hall because he wanted to try living in place with fewer black students.

''It can be good to be with people who have had the same struggles as you, people you can be more open with," said Pires, a native of Cape Verde. ''But I didn't want to close myself off to people. I wanted to get a different feel."

Still others said the concept of separate living areas is artificial, a forced separation .

''Things would be better here if people were more mixed," Kerri-Ann Eldridge, a white freshman from Danvers, said as she ate lunch in the Southwest dining commons with two friends. ''Society is mixed, this school should be mixed."

Eldridge's friend, Josh Chak, an Asian-American from New York City, saw things differently.

''You're just saying that because you're white!" Chak said. ''The school doesn't tell anyone where to live -- it gives students the option. And some students need that. It's comforting."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

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