ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING PLACES TO BE around noon on any weekday is the University Center at the University of Houston. It’s a long, low, unremarkable building with an open rectangular courtyard in the center. The rails around the courtyard are always covered with hand-painted posters for various events and organizations—a venerable and unchanging form of campus communication that even the wonders of high tech have not replaced. Just before noon, representatives of everything from the Pakistani Student Association to Campus Presbyterians set up card tables covered with literature and try to recruit students passing by. Inside there is a large cafeteria. Walking into it is like walking into the restaurant at the United Nations. There is a complex din of languages from every continent and a spectrum of skin hues. There are brash young women in miniskirts and tight camisoles and Muslim women in loose robes that reach to the floor and scarves that cover their hair. There are taut, rebellious-looking young men in sandals and blue jeans and solemn young men of ambition in white shirts and ties.
With only a few exceptions, students eat with other students who look like themselves. Africans eat with Africans, African Americans eat with other African Americans, Muslim women eat with Muslim women, Arabs with Arabs, Hispanics with Hispanics, and whites with whites. But there isn’t tension in the air. People gossip and wave at friends. Many sit with textbooks open and go over lessons. To watch this scene at noon is to see the future of the city taking shape before your eyes and to understand that the University of Houston, unique among schools in Texas, is an immense and successful engine of assimilation located right in the center of the community it serves.
It’s rare to find a school that is both this diverse and this selective about the quality of students it admits. The Hopwood decision, which nullified the University of Texas’ method of admitting minority students through affirmative action, created an agonized panic throughout the UT and Texas A&M systems. These institutions