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College to Impose Sanctions on Final Club Members

5.6.16

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Citing their history of gender discrimination and negative influence on campus life, University President Drew Faust announced in an e-mail today that Harvard will ban members of historically male final clubs and other unrecognized, single-gender social groups from holding certain leadership roles and receiving College endorsements for fellowships. The announcement comes after a year of increasingly explicit pressure on the clubs from Faust and Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, and follows criticism of the clubs highlighted in the report of University’s the task force on sexual assault.     

“Over time, Harvard has transformed its undergraduate student body as it has welcomed women, minorities, international students, and students of limited financial means as an increasing proportion of its population. But campus culture has not changed as rapidly as student demography,” Faust wrote. “A truly inclusive community requires that students have the opportunity to participate in the life of the campus free from exclusion on arbitrary grounds. Although the fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are not formally recognized by the College, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values. The College cannot ignore these organizations if it is to advance our shared com­mitment to broadening opportunity and making Harvard a campus for all of its students. Nor can it endorse selection criteria that reject much of the student body merely because of gender.”

Seemingly responding to criticism that sanctions on final clubs would undermine students’ freedom of association, Khurana stressed in a letter to Faust recommending the policy that students will still have the right to join discriminatory groups, but that association with such groups is contrary to Harvard’s values. “These new policies will not prevent undergraduates from choosing their own paths while at Harvard,” he argued. “The recommendations are instead focused exclusively on decisions belonging to the College about what it funds, sponsors, endorses, or otherwise operates under its name.”

Members of final clubs and other unrecognized, gender-exclusive groups whose purpose is primarily social, like fraternities and sororities, won’t be allowed to hold leadership positions in recognized student groups or athletics. Nor will they receive endorsements from the College dean’s office for fellowships that require them, such as the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. The policy will take effect in fall 2017, affecting only students in the class of 2021 and younger. Single-gender organizations that are recognized by the University, such as the South Asian Men’s Collective or the Association of Black Harvard Women, won’t be affected. The University plans to appoint an advisory committee of faculty, students, and staff to enforce the policy. 

The announcement follows a year of escalating hostilities between the clubs and the College administration, which had pressured them to accept women members. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson Wednesday, Faust condemned the clubs for promoting an environment of “exclusion and discrimination” not only on the basis of gender, but also through their arbitrary admissions criteria, echoing arguments from students that the clubs also discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The new College policy, though, will only target groups that engage in gender discrimination.  

“[A]t this time, the College should not adopt a rule prohibiting students from joining unrecognized social organizations that retain discrimina­tory membership policies,” Faust wrote, an option many final club members had feared. “Students will decide for themselves whether to engage with these organizations, as members or otherwise.” But the cachet associated with leadership roles and top fellowships, for many students, will serve as a de facto ban.  

Douglas Sears ’69, a former president of the graduate board of the Fox and the now-defunct Inter-Club Council, condemned the policy, and disputed the link between sexual assault and final clubs. “Sexual assault is marginally linked to the clubs,” he said. “Women at Harvard are more likely to be assaulted in dormitories than anywhere else.” Sears argued the new policy is clearly intended to force final clubs to go co-ed, but doubts whether they’ll accede. “People will just say, ‘My daughter can’t be a lacrosse captain just because she joined the Bee,’” he said. 

“This decision depends on Harvard getting millions of dollars in research funds from the federal government,” Sears argued, suggesting that the University was under pressure from the Department of Education (DOE) to ban gender-exclusive groups. The DOE two years ago launched a probe into Harvard’s sexual assault policies. Universities can lose federal funding if they are found in violation of Title IX, the law that protects students from sex discrimination.  

Despite his statement, Sears said he supported the Fox’s decision to admit women last semester because its student members had elected to, and that he was dismissed from his presidency of the graduate board for his position.  

Since the beginning of his deanship two years ago, Khurana has focused attention on final clubs for their policies of gender discrimination and perceived contributions to alcohol abuse and sexual violence. Clubs that go co-ed (as the Spee and Fox clubs did this year, in response to College pressure) won’t be affected by the new policy.

In March, a widely publicized report of the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention denounced final clubs and urged the administration to address “the disturbing practical and cultural implications they present in undergraduate life.” The report draws on an earlier University sexual-assault climate survey conducted last spring, which found that 47 percent of senior women participating in final-club activities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering the College, compared to 31 percent of senior women overall. A related statistic—that 17 percent of sexual assaults reported in the survey took place in spaces used by single-gender social organizations, compared to 75 percent in dorms—has also been used to suggest that final clubs contribute disproportionately to sexual violence. The 75 percent may also include assaults involving final club attendees that took place in dorms—after parties on final-club property, for example. Critics have questioned the University’s reliance on correlations to make causal inferences about the influence of the clubs. 

Some final clubs have publicly condemned pressure from the administration, disputing the University’s statistics and challenging the assumption that admitting women would reduce sexual assault. Last month, Charles Storey ’82, then the graduate board president of the Porcellian Club, wrote in the first public statement in the club’s history that forcing final clubs to become co-ed would “increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.” Storey resigned from his role on the graduate board a few days later, following widespread ridicule of his comments in the national media.

Though framed as a top-down decision, it’s clear the College’s policy would not have changed without strong activism from students. The movement to dismantle final clubs reaches back at least a few decades. The College revoked their official recognition in 1984, after they declined to admit women. In 2004, a group calling itself Students Against Super Sexist Institutions-We Oppose Oppressive Final Clubs organized a campaign to disband the clubs, but was largely ignored by the administration, which said there was nothing it could do about the privately controlled clubs. In 2010, students organized the Final Club Campaign to promote dialogue about the negative influence of the clubs and to demand alternative social spaces from the administration. But calls to restrict final clubs really began to gain currency only in the last few years, following a wave of student activism targeting sexual-assault policies at Harvard and elsewhere, and a federal Title IX probe of the University for its handling of sexual assault. 

The College’s new policy imposes sanctions on individual undergraduates rather than the private clubs themselves, unless they push their clubs to go co-ed. The change in tactics may divide current student members and alumni members—as apparently happened at the Fox this year—and create a face-saving way to change the College’s culture down the road. 

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