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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Social-Club Saga

May-June 2017

As of May 6, a full year will have passed since Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana announced a policy that would sanction students enrolling this coming August and thereafter if they choose to join an unrecognized single-gender social organization (USGSO—final clubs, fraternities, or sororities; see harvardmag.com/finalclub-16). Throughout this academic year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has been entangled in disagreements over the rationale for the measure, the policy itself, and its implementation—and the issues may well remain unresolved for months to come. 

The policy, as originally propounded, withholds from undergraduates who join a USGSO the College endorsement required for prestigious fellowships (the Rhodes, Marshall, and so on), and prohibits their holding positions of leadership in recognized organizations and athletic teams. Varying rationales have been invoked to support the policy, principally focusing on the fact that the long-established male final clubs (which enjoy substantial financial resources and desirable private facilities in Harvard Square) and the newer fraternities and sororities are organizations that, de jure, exclude members of the opposite sex in close proximity to the College, which strives to be maximally inclusive; and that the venues where these groups congregate may be conducive to evasion of age-related alcohol regulations, and lead to sexual assaults.

Although many faculty members and students support implementing the policy, many others do not. Among professors—including some who have long deplored behavior associated with the final clubs—objections crystalized around three points. First, no matter how odious a gender-exclusive social club may be, so long as it and its conduct are legal, the College has no business intruding on students’ decision to affiliate themselves with such a group: the right to associate is theirs. Second, an administrative decision pertaining to social activities the College officially dislikes must not intrude on a faculty member’s prerogative in recommending a student, based on her or his academic work, for a fellowship like a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. And third, as a matter of governance, a policy like the one Khurana propounded is a matter for faculty legislation, not administrative fiat.

These themes coalesced in a motion drafted by Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis, himself a past dean of the College. Its language specified “that 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.”

Debate on the motion consumed the November and December FAS faculty meetings (see harvardmag.com/finalclub-fas-16 and harvardmag.com/finalclub-fas2-16) and appeared likely to do so again in early February.

But in late January, Khurana said he would ask FAS dean Michael D. Smith to appoint a committee, including faculty members and students, to evaluate the policy itself, in search of improvements. Lewis and colleagues decided to stand down. The faculty appeared headed toward regular discussions of other pressing business.

Not so fast.

The committee Khurana had earlier appointed to figure out how to implement the USGSO policy issued its report on March 6 (it had not been notified, prior to his January announcement, about the creation of the policy-review committee). The implementation measures, described in full at harvardmag.com/gendersteps-17, expanded the range of fellowships that would fall under the sanctions and called for extending them to leadership positions in the elected student government—the Undergraduate Council—and The Harvard Crimson, whose leaders promptly and vigorously objected. (Khurana said he would study those two applications further, while accepting all the other recommendations.) The implementation measures also called for the policy to extend not only to gender and racial discrimination, but also to socioeconomic discrimination. To bolster enforcement, the implementation group advised requiring students to sign a statement acknowledging awareness of Harvard’s nondiscrimination policy and affirming “compliance with that policy” before receiving a scholarship or fellowship endorsement, or assuming a position of leadership in a recognized organization or athletic team. Violations of the policy would be reviewed by the Honor Council, the body set up to adjudicate instances of academic misconduct such as cheating. (Some of the council’s student members promptly told the Crimson they had not been advised of this enlargement of their responsibilities, and opposed it.)

These recommendations overshadowed the implementation committee’s discussion of programs (such as “inter-house dining societies”) and new social spaces that might accommodate student needs better than the final clubs—in the Smith Campus Center (now being renovated), a repurposed Queen’s Head Pub (underneath Memorial Hall), the elegant Loeb House (home to the governing boards), and elsewhere. No cost estimates or timelines accompanied these ideas, and given FAS’s current, enormous spending on House renewal, significant new investments are not likely immediately.

The next day, Dean Smith unveiled the initial membership of the committee that will review the USGSO policy—including Khurana as co-chair (see the full list at harvardmag.com/usgso-com-17). He charged it with:

  • reviewing existing policy, reports, and data;
  • considering “whether there are other means of achieving our stated goals, including and especially that of fully advancing the non-discrimination objectives reflected in the current policy, and to evaluate whether any would be more effective than our current policy”; and
  • proposing, “should more effective means be identified, changes or expansions to the current policy or a new approach.”

A report is due for public consumption by next fall (at which point the existing policy presumably will have taken effect).

Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology David Haig is a member of the new policy-review committee. He was a proponent of Harry Lewis’s motion opposing the sanctions policy; that motion, as noted, is now suspended during the policy review. As he wrote then, “The current policy attempts to coerce the choices of students, by changing their self-interest, without a fundamental change in their values. We risk changing the choice without changing the chooser.”

Now, in reaction to the implementation committee’s recommendation that students affirm their compliance with the College’s USGSO policy, and its enforcement mechanism—both accepted by Khurana—Haig has introduced a separate motion objecting to that process. He has asked for consideration of language that reads, “This faculty does not approve of Harvard College requiring a student to make an oath, pledge or affirmation about whether the student belongs to a particular organization or category of organizations.”

As Haig explained the motion:

The laudable aim of gender-inclusivity has metamorphosed into a proposal that students seeking certain awards or offices are required to affirm that they are in compliance with “the College’s policy regarding the principle of non-discrimination, particularly with regard to membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations.” What happens if a student refuses to take this affirmation on the principle that they are opposed to such oaths? Would they be in contempt of the College’s policy and thereby ineligible for the aforementioned awards and offices? What happens if a student cannot in conscience affirm they are in compliance with the College’s policy because the student sincerely believes in a different principle of non-discrimination? Where is the space for dissent? Who determines the policy and what are the mechanisms of revision? Are there constraints on unilateral changes (by self-appointed arbiters of student virtue) of the policy to be affirmed?

I consider the requirement for such an affirmation to be a dangerous precedent. What if some future government declared particular kinds of organizations illegal and demanded oaths of non-membership from all college students. The faculty would be on firmer ground to resist such demands if it did not require similar oaths from our students.

Hence, the motion—which is deliberately phrased to test the sense of the faculty, and the implementation mechanism, rather than to address matters such as faculty versus administrative jurisdiction or the underlying policy itself. If it proceeds to full airing before the FAS, it will be interesting to see whether the objections to enforcing an oath-like affirmation are widespread among the professoriate (see harvardmag.com/usgso-oath-17). [At its April 4 meeting, the faculty referred the motion to the USGSO policy committee, and did not debate it substantively.]

In the meantime, the debate over formally single-gender social organizations has grown far beyond the bounds that anyone conceivably imagined, and continues to absorb an extraordinary amount of the faculty’s time and attention.

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