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Objecting to Student Oaths

3.14.17


Since last spring, the College’s policy to sanction members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs), like final clubs and fraternities and sororities, has prompted opposition from some students. It has been the subject of heated debate that has nearly gridlocked the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) regular faculty meetings (see these reports on the November and December sessions), pitting concerns about gender discrimination versus respect for students’ rights of association. And it has generated some confusion over parallel efforts to move ahead with implementing the policy this fall while simultaneously subjecting the policy to substantive review.

The review of the policy, announced in late January, was meant to provide some breathing room for the faculty to do its work on other issues, while, presumably, subjecting the forthcoming sanctions on USGSOs to a fresh, broader perspective incorporating diverse constitutents’ views.

But sharp divisions over the implementation measures may force renewed faculty debate.

Implementing Sanctions

Among other measures, the implementation committee’s report, published March 6 and accepted nearly in its entirety by College dean Rakesh Khurana—who announced the sanctions policy last spring—broadens the range of fellowships for which undergraduates would be disqualified if they belonged to an unrecognized single-gender club.

Applications for many prestigious fellowships require an endorsement from the College. For some faculty members who write letters of recommendation, based on their students’ academic performance, a measure that would effectively nullify their recommendation as a way of endorsing the institution’s policy on social clubs’ gender rules is anathema: it intrudes on what they see as their professorial autonomy in matters pertaining to intellectual work and merit, which cannot be contravened by an administrative decision pertaining to membership in a legal social organization or club. (Students’ right of association, in legal organizations, was the subject of the motion advanced by Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis, on which faculty debate focused in November and December. In response to the formation of the committee to review the USGSO policy just before the February faculty meeting, he withdrew his motion, allowing the faculty to move on to other business.)

Moreover, the implementation committee recommended, and Khurana accepted, having students affirm a statement of compliance: in effect, taking an oath. In the language of the implementation committee, “The basic enforcement mechanism applies to all students covered by the policy in every category. Individual students who are applying for fellowships and awards, registering as leaders of recognized student organizations, or assuming the captaincy of a varsity athletic team will be asked to sign the following document.” It reads:

One of the shared values on which Harvard College is based is nondiscrimination on the basis of characteristics of “intrinsic identity,” including gender. As leaders of student organizations and varsity athletic teams, and as holders of fellowships funded by or endorsed by the College, individual students represent the College and its values both to their peers and to people outside Harvard. As such, they are expected to abide by, safeguard, and respect the core principle of non-discrimination.

In pursuance of this principle, the following is Harvard College policy:

1. For students matriculating in the fall of 2017 and thereafter: any such students who are members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will not be eligible to hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations or athletic teams. Students seeking those positions must not have been a member of an unrecognized single-gender social organization for at least one year prior to becoming an organization leader or team captain and must remain unaffiliated with such organizations for at least one year after their tenure as leader or captain. Currently enrolled students and those who matriculated in the fall of 2016 will be exempt from these new policies.

2. For students matriculating in the fall of 2017 and thereafter: any such students who are members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will not be eligible to receive the Dean’s endorsement letters for those fellowships that require such endorsements, or to receive Harvard-funded limited selection fellowships or awards. Students seeking those awards must not have been a member of an unrecognized single-gender social organization for at least one year prior to application, and must remain unaffiliated with such organizations for at least one year after their tenure as holder of the fellowship or award. Currently enrolled students and those who matriculated in the fall of 2016 will be exempt from these new policies.

Students would have to sign this statement:

I affirm my awareness of the College’s policy regarding the principle of non-discrimination, particularly with regard to membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations. In taking a leadership position in a student organization/applying for a sponsored grant or fellowship/becoming a varsity athletic team captain, I affirm my compliance with that policy.

The committee further recommended that “violations of the policy—to wit, falsely affirming compliance—be considered a violation of the Honor Code and fall under the jurisdiction of the Honor Council.”

Thus, violating the affirmation would be a matter for review by the Honor Council, the committee that was established to hear cases of academic misconduct—cheating—itself governed by the recently enacted academic honor code. (The Harvard Crimson reported that student members of the Honor Council had not been informed of this recommendation prior to its publication and acceptance by the dean, and that some of them, who felt they had signed up for matters relating to academic conduct, were unhappy about this presumed extension of their role.)

An Anti-oath Motion

Oath-like affirmations are themselves sensitive subjects among faculty members who value academic freedom and are wary of policing students’ choices. Speaking at the November faculty meeting, Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology David Haig, an opponent of the College’s policy, emphasized the importance of acting on principle rather than expedience. “If we sanction students for membership in groups of which we disapprove, we can less credibly defend the rights of students to belong to groups of which we approve but are disapproved of by others in authority in other times and other places.” Addressing students’ autonomy, he said then:

All our students are members of the College community whether or not we approve of their choices or opinions. If we believe in the transformative power of a liberal arts education, and desire the intellectual, social, and personal transformation of our students, then our desire should be to achieve these ends by intellectual argument to transform their hearts and their minds. 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.

So it should perhaps come as little surprise that Haig finds himself again at odds with the College’s policy, as spelled out in the (now accepted) implementation committee recommendation on the affirmation students would be required to make. He has, accordingly, advanced a new motion for faculty consideration:

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.

The motion is scheduled for discussion by FAS’s Faculty Council on March 22, and may be proceeding to debate at a future faculty meeting, thus raising the whole range of USGSO policy matters again—even before the committee reviewing the policy per se (which is co-chaired by Dean Khurana) reports next fall.

In a blog post explaining his motion, Haig referred to his remarks of last November and then wrote:

One of my unspoken concerns was the question of how the policy would be implemented. My fear of “mission creep” has been fully justified by the report of the Implementation Committee that has been accepted by Dean Khurana. 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. For these reasons, I have presented a motion to the Faculty that [see language of motion, above].…

The motion is deliberately worded as disapprobation of oaths rather than prohibition of oaths because I did not want the motion to be complicated by the disputed question of whether the faculty or the administration has ultimate jurisdiction in this matter. In a similar vein, the motion does not address the disputed sanctions policy itself but rather its implementation in the requirement for an affirmation. It might also be argued that the motion is premature and should be postponed until after the recently announced committee of review makes its recommendations. I believe that that committee would benefit from knowing the sense of the faculty on the question of affirmations before making its recommendations.

And so, the matter may be joined anew.

 

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