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Single-Gender Groups Sue Harvard

12.5.18

Detail of the entryway of the A.D. Club 

Photograph by Daderot/Wikipedia


Detail of the entryway of the A.D. Club 

Photograph by Daderot/Wikipedia

A group of sororities, fraternities, and Harvard undergraduates sued the University this week over its policy to sanction membership in single-gender social organizations such as final clubs and Greek organizations. The policy, announced two and a half years ago by College dean Rakesh Khurana and adopted by the Corporation in late 2017, prohibits undergraduates who belong to unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs) from leadership posts in student organizations or athletic teams, and from receiving College endorsement for fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. 

Two separate lawsuits filed by the groups, in federal and in Massachusetts court, allege that the College’s policy constitutes sex-based discrimination. In the federal suit, the plaintiffs—the international parent organizations of two sororities, Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, the parent organizations of two fraternities, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi, Harvard’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and three Harvard students—allege that the sanctions policy violates Title IX of the Civil Rights Act as well as the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs in the Massachusetts suit—the international parent organization of the sorority Alpha Phi, Harvard’s chapter of Alpha Phi, and a management corporation for the sorority Delta Gamma—argue that the USGSO policy violates the rights to free association and equal treatment based on sex guaranteed by the Massachusetts constitution and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. 

The complaints argue that Khurana and Alexander Miller, associate dean of student engagement for the College, have pressured the undergraduate leaders of final clubs to make them co-ed, and that Harvard has pursued a “campaign of threats and coercion” in implementing the policy, intended to “scare students into abandoning their fundamental rights to free association and to live free of sex discrimination.” 

“The common thread that ties together all of Harvard’s ever-shifting justifications for the Sanctions Policy is sexism,” the federal complaint alleges. “Harvard’s views that all-male organizations cause sexual assault because they are all-male, and that there is no value to all-female or all-male organizations, are sexist in the extreme.” The policy, the plaintiffs claim, entails each type of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX: discrimination based on sex per se; discrimination on the basis of the sex with which a person associates; discrimination based on stereotypes, both about how members of a sex behave and how they ought to behave; and discrimination that results from bias against individuals of a particular sex. In Harvard’s case, the complaint argues, the sanctions policy has its origins in “anti-male bias” that assumes that male social groups have “a raft of negative characteristics,” including responsibility for sexual assault. This anti-male bias, it continues, has harmed members of men’s and women’s groups alike. 

Title IX has recognized the importance of single-sex organizations in college life, the complaint points out: “In 1974, two years after enacting Title IX, Congress amended the statute specifically to exempt single-sex social organizations from its reach. Congress singled out sororities and fraternities for special protection because Congress recognized the key role these single-sex groups can play in student development, especially the way they can help women.” 

The Massachusetts complaint also argues that the sanctions policy violates the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, which provides a cause of action against any person who “by threats, intimidation or coercion” interferes with or attempts to interfere with another person’s enjoyment of their constitutional rights. The U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, it adds, protects individuals against gender discrimination. 

“Harvard College seeks to build a community in which every student can thrive, and it does so on a foundation of shared values, including belonging, inclusion, and non-discrimination,” College spokeswoman Rachael Dane wrote in a statement responding to this magazine’s query about the lawsuit. The USGSO policy “is designed to dedicate resources to those [USGSO] organizations that are advancing principles of inclusivity, while offering them supportive pathways as they transform into organizations that align with the educational philosophy, mission, and values of the College.” 

The lawsuits recall the debate that reverberated on campus in the spring of 2016, in the aftermath of the unveiling of the draft policy. Days after Khurana first announced it, dozens of members of female final clubs and sororities protested in Harvard Yard, arguing that all-female social groups provided important spaces and opportunities to women on campus. Many believed that women’s groups were “collateral damage” in a policy that really aimed to crack down on male final clubs (a claim that is repeated in the court complaints). 

Since then, many final clubs and Greek organizations have announced plans to become co-ed. Last December, after protracted debate over the sanctions among faculty members, students, alumni, and others, the Harvard Corporation voted to adopt the policy. This past spring, the College announced its plan to implement it: groups that wish to be recognized by the College (and thus avoid the imposition of sanctions on their members) are required to submit documentation showing that they are gender-inclusive and locally autonomous, meaning that they make their own policy decisions without control by a parent organization (including, potentially, the alumni boards that have historically governed final clubs). 

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