Landscape photo of UC Berkeley campus

UC Berkeley is proposing to launch an unprecedented, risky experiment on its incoming class. Under the plan, the university will send cotton swabs to thousands of 17- and 18-year-old freshmen and transfer students, and ask them to rub the inside of their cheeks. The returned swabs will be analyzed for three gene variants as part of the university's annual "On the Same Page" program, in which incoming students engage in a common conversation, typically by reading and discussing a book.

This plan is problematic for several reasons.

First, it's no exaggeration to call it an experiment; it is classified as such. The ethical cornerstone of human experimentation is free and informed consent, but UC Berkeley's endeavor is subtly coercive. These students, some of them minors, understandably place a great degree of trust in their university and should be able to count on it not to abuse this trust. Furthermore, most of them will want to be "on the same page" as their peers, creating social pressure to participate.

Second, the endeavor will have the effect of legitimizing, if not promoting,...