The Harvard University administration has taken a bold step in its ongoing effort to force the school’s exclusive all-male social clubs to accept women into their ranks. Beginning in the fall of 2017, students who join single-gender groups like the men-only so-called “final clubs,” which are independent from the school itself, will be barred from leadership positions in student organizations or sports teams and ineligible for school recommendations for fellowships like the Rhodes program. The sanctions will not affect current students or those matriculating this fall.
“The discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances. The most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men,” Harvard dean Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email to students on Friday. “In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.”
Friday’s announcement is part of an escalating push from the university to make the final clubs induct female members. The effort goes back as far as 1984, when administrators tried to force the issue; in response, the clubs, then official campus groups, disaffiliated themselves from the university and moved their headquarters off campus. Earlier this year, after a task force found that single-sex final clubs contributed to a culture that supported sexual assault, Khurana told the clubs that they’d have to go co-ed by April 15 or face sanctions from the school.
Some alumni were incensed at the thought of their cherished men-only havens turning into places where women could reap the benefits of a privileged network within a privileged network. Charles M. Storey, the president of Harpoon Brewery and the graduate board president of one of the most elitist of the groups, the Porcellian Club, told the Harvard student newspaper that inviting women to join final clubs would heighten the potential for sexual assaults. His statement—the most extensive public comment the club had made since its founding in 1791—called the proposed sanctions “McCarthyism.” Storey resigned from his Porcellian Club position after a swift backlash from students and other alumni.
Other Harvard alumni are saying it’s taken a while for the university to even realize it had leverage to force the private clubs’ hand, or that administrators put off the possibility, hoping they wouldn’t have to resort to the nuclear option.
I remember hearing as a student that there was nothing the administration could do about these clubs https://t.co/pFbHOddi6K— Irin Carmon (@irin) May 6, 2016
Now that Harvard is poised to take eventual action, other universities should be on notice: Harvard’s move has poked a giant hole in the conventional wisdom that independent off-campus student organizations can’t be regulated. Colleges that don't have final clubs can apply the same logic and sanctions to Greek organizations, which universities have found notoriously difficult to penalize, as in the case of a Yale fraternity that’s had repeated disciplinary write-ups and weathered multiple allegations of racism. There, administrators have barred the fraternity from using campus resources or using the Yale name in its events, but they have claimed they can’t do much else except punish specific students if they break school rules.
The Harvard final clubs present at least one considerable challenge to sanction enforcement: Since the clubs are private, their membership rolls are not publicized. There are initiation proceedings and dues, and the ubiquity of social media could make it hard for an entire organization to hide its roster. It wouldn’t be outside the purview of normal college conduct agreements to ask a student to sign a document verifying that he is not a member of an all-male final club before he accepts a basketball captainship or a Fulbright recommendation. Still, if the indignant desperation of the Porcellian Club’s once-in-two-centuries outburst is any indication of how entitled some final club members feel to their men-only spaces, Harvard may be in for a lawsuit or two from wannabe class presidents who decide the school can’t prove their membership in an official old boys’ club.