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Final-Club Complications

12.6.16


As members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) prepare to meet this afternoon to vote on a motion that opposes the College’s proposed sanctions on students who join single-gender social organizations not officially recognized by the College (the long-established men’s final clubs; recently created women’s final clubs, which lack the endowments and Harvard Square buildings owned by the male clubs; and fraternities and sororities), the unresolved issues and questions have, if anything, multiplied. In particular, 157 pages of student responses to survey questions about College social life, disseminated to voting faculty members on a password-protected basis by FAS dean Michael D. Smith on November 21, depict sweeping criticisms that include not only the gendered membership of final clubs but their other characteristics—and, more broadly, the structure and regulation of undergraduate social life generally. That may provide food for thought for faculty members who have the time and energy to wade through the raw survey responses. (For others who may be interested, The Harvard Crimson has helpfully posted the entire PDF here.)

Thus, even as FAS and College leaders engage with faculty members on the specifics and mechanics of the sanctions policy, the student survey responses suggest many other problems that sanctions (and an end to single-sex final clubs) may well not reach. So today’s debate—and the pending sanctions, if implemented as proposed—may be too narrowly focused.

As an indication of the passions stirred up, the secretary of the faculty notified FAS members on Monday afternoon that the meeting location had been moved from the faculty room in University Hall to the more capacious Science Center B (and it will be all business: the traditional tea and cookies will not be served). Proponents of the motion have asked for a paper ballot to assure that faculty members attending the meeting can vote their consciences freely.

This report attempts to summarize the background and issues now facing the faculty, including the resolution under debate and broader matters that extend beyond it.

Background

Last spring, citing gender-exclusive policies and negative influence on campus life, College dean Rakesh Khurana and President Drew Faust announced that beginning with the class of 2021 (matriculating next fall), members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations—final clubs, fraternities and sororities—would be ineligible to hold leadership roles in recognized student organizations (for example, serving as captain of an athletic team or running a publication or choral group), and would not receive endorsements for fellowships (Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, for instance).

Among the initial student responses were objections from members of women’s clubs and sororities, who cited their own, recently formed organizations as essential venues for support and friendship not available in coeducational settings, and thus important for their social lives and identities as students.

Thereafter, a dozen faculty members critiqued the sanctions policy as an abrogation of students’ freedom to associate and of their academic freedom, and advanced a resolution opposing the proposed sanctions, for subsequent FAS consideration: “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political, or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal.”

That resolution was debated at length and heatedly (see “Harvard Faculty Debate Final Club Sanctions” for a detailed report, including many speakers’ remarks) during the November 1 faculty meeting. Speakers who favor the resolution raised objections to the proposed policy that focused on students’ freedom of association; professors’ contention that the proposed sanctions were developed without consultation and promulgated administratively—steps that undercut the faculty members’ shared role in governance; conditioning academic matters (endorsement for fellowships, for instance) on nonacademic criteria; and the feeling that the regulatory regime was at odds with the institution’s proper role of discussing behavior with students and attempting to persuade them to be inclusive—in other words, education. Objections to the resolution focused on its alleged duplication of existing anti-discrimination policy; the narrow intent of the sanctions; and the risk that the resolution would foster the growth of Greek life, undercutting the undergraduate House system.

Undergraduate Council (UC) leaders who spoke at the meeting endorsed the proposed sanctions. But a Crimson survey of undergraduates during this fall’s balloting for new UC leaders yielded a majority of respondents opposed to the sanctions—and the only pro-sanctions candidates (whose support was “conditional”) were defeated in the election. In an accompanying referendum question, students voted for the repeal of the proposed sanctions. In the meantime, Dean Khurana proceeded to organize a committee charged with implementing the sanctions, asking it to address:

  • What leadership roles and endorsements are affected by the policy;
  • How organizations can transition to fulfill the expectations of inclusive membership practices; and
  • How the College should handle transgressions of the policy.

(The regulations are not self-implementing; among other things, membership in a final club or other social organization is not a public matter, so student members will somehow have to report on status.)

Survey Responses on Social Life

Harvard College regularly surveys students to learn about their experiences; the results are generally closely held, but occasional nuggets are made known (for example, undergraduates who dread being “Quadded”—assigned to live in the Houses based at the former Radcliffe Quad—historically have often reported a higher level of satisfaction with their residential life than those who live in the River Houses). Administrators have long had access to the resulting data, of course (and some suggested reading some of the survey responses last summer for insight into student concerns about sexual assault, but an inquiry then did not yield access.) Some observers who have examined such issues note that in their own accounts, Harvard students do not report having had the happiest social lives during their undergraduate years, compared to similar responses at similar institutions—perhaps in part a reflection of the level of academic pressure they find, or internalize, in Cambridge.

 So it was a surprise when, on November 21, the secretary of the faculty disseminated to its voting members this message from Dean Smith:

To further inform the faculty’s discussion of the College’s policy regarding Unrecognized Single Gender Social Organizations (USGSOs), I write to share a link to information from five years of undergraduate surveys. At this link you will find all responses from the freshman, senior, and House life surveys that include the words final club, fraternity, and/or sorority from academic year 2010 to the present. These data are not a selection of responses. They include all responses from these surveys that reference these keywords. 

The prompts to which these responses were made are:

  • Please use the space below to elaborate on any of the questions on the survey and to comment on any other aspect of your undergraduate experience not covered in this questionnaire.
  • If you could change up to three things about the way Harvard educates its students, what would you change?
  • Please comment on the best aspects of your freshman experience not already mentioned.
  • Please comment on the most disappointing aspects of your freshman experience not already mentioned.
  • Please comment on your most positive academic experience at Harvard.
  • Please comment on your most disappointing academic experience at Harvard.
  • What can Harvard College do, if anything, to help reduce student stress?
  • What experience at Harvard had the most significant impact on you?
  • Overall, what is your level of satisfaction with your social experiences at Harvard? Why?

Students are encouraged to participate in these surveys to help improve the Harvard College experience. Participation is not mandatory, and students are informed before taking the survey that their anonymized feedback will be shared to inform future policy development. For example, the College provides department chairs with comments made by students in their concentrations, and provides feedback from students about their House experiences with faculty deans. 

Faculty serving on the Implementation Committee have already been provided with these survey responses. As the voting members of the Faculty are now asking to fully engage on this set of issues, they too need access to this data to have an informed discussion. I hope these data providing a range of student voices on USGSOs are helpful to you as you prepare for our next meeting of the Faculty.

The 157 pages of “Student Comments about Single Gender Social Organizations: Survey Comments from AY [Academic Year] 2010-2011 through AY 2014-2015” need to be interpreted with many cautions:

  • The full survey questionnaires are not presented.
  • Some students raise questions about the wording of the survey instruments concerning final clubs vs. sororities and fraternities.
  • The responses are not sorted in any way.
  • No tests of statistical validity are available.
  • Student perspectives—a nearly universal wish to have access to alcoholic beverages, which a law-abiding institution cannot accommodate for those not of drinking age; wistful impressions about how things are on other campuses—need to be considered in light of external constraints, and/or taken with large grains of salt. (Students do have agency, and Harvard is located in a very attractive, lively, safe urban area—especially relative to many peer institutions.)
  • Responses may well have varied over time given students’ changing awareness of and sensitivity to issues—as a notable example, much more focused public discussion of sexual assault in more recent survey years.
  • A great deal of social life is centered in extracurricular activities, much of which may not be captured in these responses.
  • And, generally, these isolated comments are data points, not coherent information about the state of affairs.

It is also notable that the responses are not uniform. Though not common, expressions of support for final clubs and Greek organizations are not rare, either:

  • I think there is a strong need for more final club/fraternity-type opportunities for undergraduate students. This experience is currently restricted to only a small percentage of the male student body, and could offer tremendous opportunities for growth.
  • Harvard should recognize all fraternities, sororities, and male and female final clubs.
  • By far my most rewarding experience was leading the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter at Harvard, and my biggest dissatisfaction with Harvard has been its refusal to recognize Greek life and even more so its continued efforts to equate women's fraternitieswith final clubs. Female Greek life made me feel welcome at an otherwise large and scary place and gave me the confidence to succeed personally and academically here at Harvard. I could not be more grateful for that experience and, as an alumna, hope to see the University at least differentiate among academic, social, and philanthropic organizations and social clubs.

Of course, many comments lean in diametrically opposite directions:

  • Burn down final clubs.
  • [F]inal clubs should be banned: they are antithetical to the goal of building community.
  • The final club system single-handedly keeps Harvard back 20 years in terms of social progress. It is one of the last bastions of institutionalized racism, sexism, and aristocracy left at the school, even if most of its individual members are not, in and of themselves, racist, sexist, or classist. Many of my best friends are in final clubs, and they're largely good people. That doesn't change the fact that any system that so explicitly enforces and strengthens the existing white, male, upper-class power structure at work in Harvard and in our society at large, is inherently, insidiously destructive.

These differences of perspective aside, perhaps the most interesting, and from a policy perspective, challenging issues get at these other matters:

First, many students object to constraints that they say prohibit freshmen from holding parties in their rooms, and that require upperclassmen to apply for permission to hold parties in their rooms. Thus:

I think Harvard needs to deeply contemplate its role in the social dissatisfaction of so many of its students on campus. The reason final clubs have outsize social influence is wholly due to the stance that the College has taken with regards to parties and residential social life. The fact that parties need to be registered by the Wednesday before the coming weekend is laughable. I don't know what I’m doing on a Friday night at 8 p.m., let alone multiple days before during the middle of my academic work week. While I also understand that Harvard deeply worries about liability, the quality of social life at many of its peer institutions (Yale, UPenn, Brown, Columbia, etc.) seems to dispute this often invoked line of reasoning. Furthermore, Harvard should be careful not to alienate a significant percentage of its student body—those in final clubs—who provide social diversions for many members of the college community to enjoy, member or otherwise.

And:

Harvard’s housing is set up such that people can potentially have such control over their own social spaces. The absurd restrictions put on dorm parties and social gatherings [make] that an unsustainable space. I have found a very positive social experience through the final clubs but I think it is incredibly irresponsible of Harvard to place the major burden of the social scene on them. It is also particularly irresponsible considering how male dominated and potentially unsafe those spaces can be. The college should not be waging a war on these social institutions—they are not the problem. The problem is that students have no alternatives. For example, my roommates (all 21) invited a number of guests (also all 21) to our room for an event. Since it was on a Thursday, we couldn't register it (we would have!) and thus got in trouble and had our party hosting revoked for the rest of the semester. Instead, we just spent the rest of the semester hanging out in final clubs, even though we’d rather be in our room. If Harvard is serious about the well being of its students and encouraging a positive social scene, they will relax room restrictions and create more outlets for student space, especially at night.

Second, students argue that the College’s rules for in-room parties in fact encourage risky behavior:

There is no longer a point in attempting to host on-campus events, let alone ones that include alcohol. The [Office of Student Life’s] policies cause two things to happen—first, students pregame more. They drink a lot of alcohol very quickly before going out, often in small, secretive settings. Second, it gives final clubs (which are completely unregulated and have a safety history that is spotty at best) a monopoly on legitimate social options. Students don’t want to spend their Saturday nights watching movies and playing Scrabble.

Third, beyond the many important, passionate comments about gender discrimination (and the reported practice of at least some of the male final clubs of admitting only women to social functions, and/or selecting women to enter based on their appearance, underscoring concerns about sexual assault), both women and men respondents pointed to the distorting effect that the intersection of College social rules with club social events can have on freshmen men’s social lives. A comment weaving several of these threads together:

The administration’s alcohol policy for freshmen is entirely counterproductive. As I understand it, the reason for having “dry” freshmen dorms is to keep Harvard's younger, perhaps less experienced, students safe. But the fact that freshmen can’t have parties in their rooms without risking severe consequences means that, 1) freshmen are forced to drink hard liquor (shots) quickly, rather than beer or mixed drinks more socially, so that they don’t get caught, and 2) freshmen, particularly freshmen girls (since freshmen guys are generally less welcome) are driven to final clubs or other off-campus parties, because they can’t have their own in their rooms. This is bad for everyone: for freshmen guys, they’re left no parties to socialize at, for freshmen girls, they’re thrust onto a scene where they’re constantly targeted and objectified, and for the administration, there’s simply more heavy drinking, frankly, more rape, and certainly less socializing for all freshmen. I am absolutely convinced that this situation would be greatly alleviated if the administration allowed parties (with alcohol, within reason) in freshmen dorms, or at least were much less strict about them (as at peer schools like Yale, Princeton, Penn, and Dartmouth). Final clubs/off-campus parties wouldn’t be such an issue if they weren’t the only place for freshmen to go to parties.

And:

I feel like if the college’s drinking policy in the freshman dorms was changed to something similar to Stanford’s policy (open door policy) this problem would not persist. Moreover, the college’s current alcohol policy encourages freshman to drink quickly and quietly in our dorms to pre-game before heading out, and this in turn causes problems like binge drinking and blacking out. It also contributes to alcohol poisoning. Please seriously consider doing something about this. Not only does the current social scene exclude freshman males, it also encourages unhealthy drinking habits.

Fourth, students who critique final clubs often mention characteristics beyond their gender-exclusive nature:

The very existence of the final clubs reinforces a social pyramid that places wealthy, preppy, and often white men and women at the top as well as a few token racial, ethnic, and social minorities. The final clubs possess a monopoly not just on social space, but on the quality of social activities. More importantly, though, is the fact that membership in a final club grants the individual supreme social status on campus and access to a very exclusive world of students and families. Final clubs exist solely for the purpose of excluding the vast majority of students in order to make their own members feel important. Exclusivity is the name of the game.

And:

It’s a bit laughable that the administration thinks they can fix the final club issue by opening it up to women—there already are female final clubs. If you think turning exclusive, single-sex organizations into exclusive coed organizations is going to make a difference you’re delusional.

And:

It is true that the campus is not dominated by a Greek scene. It’s dominated by something much worse. The Final clubs are the most horrific part of this University. They are sexist, racist, dangerous, and represent…every negative stereotype that Harvard has. They have a stranglehold on the University and if you are not cool enough, white enough or rich enough to join one, you are stuck wandering around Cambridge on weekend nights searching for probably an awful party because a great majority of the social people are at the clubs.

And:

I have a large circle of friends across all racial and socioeconomic boundaries and a close-knit group of best friends who I trust, even love, and can always have fun with: I would characterize myself as one of the more social and connected members of the freshman class. I went out every weekend during fall semester (including, on multiple occasions, to final clubs, which is almost impossible for a freshman guy) and have maintained a highly social life at Harvard. However, even in what I have been told is and recognize as an enviable position, I am dissatisfied with the social life and know through many conversations how much worse it is for most others. Let me qualify/clarify. I have found and believe most people in the Harvard community to be generally warm/social and willing to make new friends if approached. While academic stress and self-interest can interfere, I believe this is a social environment and that most people have made strong friends. However, when it comes to parties and events, we all know that the final clubs and the Hasty Pudding are the only place[s] where there are consistently good parties, and that they subsequently dominate social life at Harvard. Evident from published lists of members and common knowledge, final clubs/HP are much wealthier and whiter than the student body at large and confer tremendous social advantage to members (even disregarding alumni networks/other advantages). Students of color in the clubs are almost entirely international elites or rich Americans.…The female half of the general population is automatically cut out of the final club world, as are almost all guys (who usually can’t ever attend parties, unlike a select group of girls). This select group of girls can only attend parties at final clubs because they are physically attractive or wealthy (like the girls who make it into the Hasty Pudding). This blatant elitism, sexism, and continuing racial divide is widely recognized as the source of much envy, vitriol and unhappiness on campus, in addition to being antithetical to Harvard’s entire mission of diversity, inclusion, etc. I have not said anything original, but this has been by far the most disappointing aspect of my time here, I expect it will continue to be, and this seems to be a widely-held opinion.

Discussion

Comments like these no doubt dismay administrators—beyond the issues of gender stereotyping associated with male final clubs’ apparently powerful role in undergraduates’ social lives, and student criticisms of their own lives in Harvard’s expensive, vaunted residential Houses. The College sanctions are obviously meant to induce the clubs—undergraduate members and their alumni members and boards—to move toward coeducational admissions. But the student comments throughout the survey suggest problems that the sanctions alone will not address:

•The relatively small final clubs (measured by membership) may still play an outsized role in defining social life on campus.

•Nominally, or actually, moving toward coeducational membership will not necessarily eliminate the attraction for first-year students of club parties in unregulated settings—nor will it evidently address the apparently unequal effects on first-year women’s and men’s social lives.

•The established male final clubs are seen not only as gender-exclusive (by definition), but also as visible symbols of status differentiated by racial and socioeconomic differences. That is a growing problem at a College that is making enormous efforts in its outreach, recruiting, and financial-aid programs to attract a truly diverse student body and to enroll more lower-income and first-to-college undergraduates.

•Even if the College were to encourage final clubs to become coeducational (something fraternities and sororities by definition cannot achieve), the clubs may have little incentive to become recognized entities again (a status they lost in 1984). The established clubs with facilities and endowments have hugely valuable assets within Harvard Square—and powerful reasons to retain as much freedom of action as possible, and thereby to remain dominant, magnetic forces within the undergraduate social scene (particularly given the College’s need to adhere to legal drinking-age requirements). An administration FAQ handout for the December 6 faculty meeting notes that after 1984:

The withdrawal of recognition did not have the hypothesized effect of marginalizing the clubs. Rather, two things occurred. First, perhaps because the male final clubs were now outside any supervision by the College, their centrality to the social life of the College gradually increased. Over time, some of the clubs became a locus for unsupervised parties where non-member men were typically excluded and women handpicked to enter. According to reports from undergraduates, the selection criteria often involve the women’s attractiveness or dress.

Second, at least in part in response to the growing role of the male final clubs, female final clubs, sororities, and fraternities have proliferated in the past several decades. None of these organizations is recognized by the College, purposefully integrated into undergraduate life, or overseen by the College.

In response to the question, “Will the policy fully solve the problems of exclusivity and student safety?” the FAQ continues: “No—it is hard to imagine any single policy addressing all aspects of the issues presented by the USGSOs. But the policy was adopted with the expectation that it is an important step toward improving culture.…The policy is by no means perfect…but it was seen by the University, the FAS, and the College leadership as a thoughtful initial step to a long-standing situation requiring attention.”

While FAS and College leaders engage with faculty members on the specifics and mechanics of the sanctions policy, the student survey responses suggest many other problems that sanctions (and coeducational final clubs) may well not reach. And so today's debate may be too narrowly focused.

Two more comprehensive approaches come to mind. One is taking shape at Princeton, where the status of the historic eating clubs has been gradually eroded by the institution’s progressive creation of residential colleges with dining facilities and meal plans, and the construction of Frist Campus Center as a locus of dining and other activities for the entire student body. Harvard, with full-service Houses for all its undergraduates already in place, is not about to clone them in some different way, or to build a full-fledged student center (although the conversion of Holyoke Center into Smith Campus Center may create additional student social options). But in some sense, Princeton has been pursuing a holistic, multiyear plan that will have the effect of changing the culture that arose around the eating clubs. Harvard’s final-club sanctions may induce a change in the gendered nature of their memberships, but it is not yet clear what more comprehensive program the College envisions to address other challenges.

Another approach is educational, rather than regulatory or rules-based. Returning to the student comments, there is at least a suggestion of how this might unfold:

I think the College has to be more out in front as a moral voice -- it should be more actively encouraging its students to live lives of public service, more actively discouraging exclusive social worlds like the final clubs (even if they do boast lots of big-donor graduates), etc.

And:

Harvard culture seems to place too much emphasis on getting into final clubs and other social organizations that generally promote this culture. I think that this could be remedied by promoting the social activities of other, egalitarian institutions and extracurricular activities rather than the misogynistic and elitist culture promoted by these other social organizations.

Governance

Beyond the principles at stake and the efficacy of the sanctions as proposed, the issue has prompted discussion of the faculty’s role in governance. At the November 1 faculty meeting, Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas sought to clarify President Faust’s view on whether the faculty itself (rather than, say, Dean Khurana acting on his own authority) had the right to determine policies like those embedded in the sanctions: if the faculty-written motion passed, in other words, would the sanctions policy be prevented from going into effect?

Faust, who presides ex officio over faculty meetings, replied that she found it more helpful to “think of our work together as rooted in notions of shared governance. I believe that faculty and deans and presidents who all come from the faculty share responsibility for this community and its culture, and I believe that our discussion today is intended to illuminate how best to exercise that responsibility.” Faust later hinted that the policy might be revised.

But in the meantime, Khurana has proceeded to establish the implementation committee. And the Crimson reported last week that William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, in essence said that the policy as promulgated last spring is in its final form:

As faculty debate whether the College should have a policy penalizing members of final clubs and Greek organizations, the senior fellow of Harvard’s highest governing body said the policy itself will not be revoked, though its implementation will determine its ultimate impact. 

“Now I think that the policy’s a policy, now the question is to implement it and make it work,” William F. Lee ’72, who leads the Harvard Corporation, said last month.

“The devil’s in the details,” Lee said of how the implementation of the policy will actually work.

The policy itself, Lee said in the Crimson report, is “the first major step.”

In an FAQ for the December 6 meeting and vote, Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis, author of the faculty motion and a former dean of Harvard College, wrote:

Q: You think that the Faculty should have been involved in developing this policy, but weren’t the decisions to sever ties with the final clubs and to randomize the assignment of students to the Houses decided without faculty involvement?

A: No, the Faculty was heavily involved in both those decisions. The 1984 decision to sever ties with the final clubs was made (after extensive prior deliberation) by the Committee on College Life, an ancestor of the Committee on Student Life. That committee was a subcommittee of the Faculty Council, and therefore consisted of elected representatives of the Faculty, augmented by elected student representatives. Randomization was proposed first by the Standing Committee on Athletic Sports under the leadership of Professor John Dowling, and then in 1994 by an ad hoc senior faculty committee (the Committee on the Structure of Harvard College), and was implemented by Dean Jewett only following discussion in the Committee on House Life, the Faculty Council, and the full Faculty. Historically, the faculty has been involved in such major policy discussions about student life.

In a longer post on his blog after the November 1 faculty meeting, Lewis probed these past examples of faculty involvement in important issues governing student life at Harvard, and argued forcefully for a different way of approaching analysis of student social life and arriving at the policies shaping it.

In the meantime, the faculty’s elected representatives on the Faculty Council—who work closely with the dean and University administration, and vet legislation, advising colleagues of their conclusions—have apparently declined to vote on the resolution, suggesting how convoluted the debate has become. According to the Crimson’s account, council members are uncertain whether the language in the motion would affect, or pertain to, the sanctions policy per se, so embracing it might disappoint colleagues who see it as a way of forcing the College to rescind the sanctions. One council member, professor of Japanese history David L. Howell, wrote in a Crimson op-ed that the language, as drafted, “does not refer to the policy at all” and would be redundant—but that voting “no” would seemingly represent a vote in favor of discrimination. Hence, he abstained. 

(On the question of overlap with existing policies, Harry Lewis told the Crimson, he could not “find anything in [the College’s handbook] that would cover membership in clubs or other organizations.” He continued, “Professor Howell’s op-ed raises a question as to whether existing nondiscrimination policies prohibit discriminating against students simply because they belong to certain clubs. If existing policies do prohibit that, then the new College policy is contrary to existing Harvard nondiscrimination policies and should be withdrawn immediately, without further action by the Faculty. If existing policies don’t prohibit that form of discrimination, then our motion is properly formulated to prevent it.”)

Pending the vote today, and its aftermath, it is unknown whether the College will rethink its sanctions policy or move to address student social life more broadly. It is likely, however, that since the sanctions policy was announced by e-mail last spring, sharp differences of opinion about institutional governance, which have waxed and waned during the past 15 years, have come to the fore anew—dividing faculty members and administrators who may, in fact, share common views about the role and effects of single-gender social organizations at Harvard College. 

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