An official Harvard University committee has recommended that the administration prohibit all students from joining exclusive, traditionally single-gender social clubs like fraternities, sororities, and so-called “final clubs.” After a damning report found that Harvard final clubs enabled a culture of sexual violence, the school moved last spring to force all final clubs—centuries-old, usually all-male institutions—to admit women or risk having members barred from leadership positions and fellowship recommendations.
Now, writes a committee of students, staff, and faculty members, that’s not good enough. “Even if all of these organizations adopted gender-neutral membership in a timely fashion, there would remain a myriad of practices of these organizations that go against the educational mission and principles espoused by Harvard University,” reads the committee’s report, sent to university community members on Wednesday. Harvard has been trying to push these clubs to go all-gender since the mid-‘80s; in response, the clubs officially disaffiliated themselves from the school. The new recommendation is the strictest and furthest-reaching policy the school has ever presented on the issue. For now, the committee’s recommendation to phase out single-gender and exclusive groups (or phase in sanctions for joining them) is still just a suggestion. Committee members expect the final policy to be unveiled in the fall, probably modeled on prohibitions against sororities and fraternities instated at Williams College and Bowdoin College.
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According to the report, final clubs and Greek organizations dominate the school’s social scene, such that even students who want nothing to do with them find their social lives affected. The sense of belonging some students derive from these groups “comes at the expense of the exclusion of the vast majority of Harvard undergraduates,” the committee wrote. “Of course, that is the definition of selective-membership clubs: some belong, some don’t. However, it is the invidious manner in which such clubs form their memberships and generate their guest lists (in the case of those that host parties) that makes them incompatible with the goals and standards of Harvard University.” Since the organizations aren’t formally connected to the university, the school can’t outright ban them. Instead, the committee proposes to whittle away their memberships by sending students who join them to an administrative board that will mete out unspecified disciplinary measures. The policy would see the groups “phased out” over the next five years.
Some students and alumni have said that it isn’t fair to target all single-gender groups just because a number of them have become havens for binge-drinking, sexual assault, and hazing. When Harvard first introduced sanctions for participating in single-gender organizations last year, the president of Harpoon Brewery (and an alumni leader of one of Harvard’s final clubs) said letting women into the clubs would actually increase the potential for sexual assaults. The report says some clubs reacted to the 2016 sanctions “with an increased zest for exclusion and gender discrimination.” This time around, one student in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals troupe, which puts on an all-male show each year, told the New York Times that switching forbidden characteristics of clubs “from gender exclusivity to exclusivity at all” is violating students’ freedom to associate, and “particularly rich coming from one of the most exclusive universities that exists.”
But, in its report, the Harvard committee argues that discrimination based on “gender, race, class, and sexual orientation” is a feature, not a bug, of the types of groups it names. Remember, the school has been trying to get clubs to admit women for more than 30 years. “Time after time, the social organizations have demonstrated behavior inconsistent with an inclusive campus culture, a disregard for the personhood and safety of fellow students, and an unwillingness to change—even as new students join them over generations,” the report says. “The final clubs in particular were products of their time. Due to their resistance to change over the decades, they have lapsed into products behind their time.”
Though there are plenty of existing ills (sexual assault, outright discrimination) that the university wants to quash with this new policy, it sounds like committee members, who dubbed the policy a “preventative step,” are more concerned with shifting the general social culture of the school. Organizations built around racist, sexist, and classist ideas of belonging will never fully shake that association, especially when the groups’ vaunted identities are so closely tied to their histories and alumni networks. It is the right of Harvard administrators to shape the school’s social environment in whatever ways they believe will best serve the student community—if they don’t want student life dominated by literal old boys’ clubs in 2017, they should be able to advance policies against them.
That doesn’t mean current students will be happy about it—one dissenting member of the committee pointed to a survey that showed a majority of student respondents supporting the groups—but they’ll graduate in a few years before the policy even takes full effect. In the future, prospective students who very badly wish to join single-gender legacy clubs can simply apply elsewhere. In the best case scenario, a few rounds of matriculation down the road, Harvard students won’t be bemoaning the lack of frat parties and elaborate hazing rituals for a chosen few. They’ll be enjoying a more inclusive social scene dominated by clubs and common-interest organizations that don’t require passing some subjective, elitist litmus test for admittance.
But students aren’t the only population Harvard has to serve. For some alumni members of Harvard’s final clubs, the groups mean more than just memories—they’re a vital connection to the university in its present form. Through current members of the clubs, alumni stoke their college pride and keep up with what’s happening on campus. Some find great fulfillment in helping their younger fellow club members adjust to life after Harvard and advance their careers. That doesn’t make the school’s reasons for trying to end the clubs any less legitimate, but if Harvard administrators want to maintain their alumni connections (and attendant flow of financial support), they will need to recognize and appropriately address the real loss the end of these clubs will represent for some alumni. Then, they should move forward with a policy that works in the best interests of young people still on Harvard’s campus. To create “an inclusive, healthy, and safe environment for Harvard students,” the committee wrote in its report, “this committee believes we owe it to our future students to take action.”