Final Club Fallout

Harvardians react to social-club sanctions.

Members of all-female social clubs protest against new sanctions on single-gender organizations. Photograph by Kit Wu/The Harvard Crimson

In the weeks since College dean Rakesh Khurana and President Drew Faust announced that Harvard would take action against unrecognized single-gender social organizations on campus, both those opposed and those in favor of the policy—ranging from members of the clubs to alumni and the national media—have made their opinions known in articles, on social media, and, in at least one case, by staging a protest outside Faust’s office in Massachusetts Hall.

The new rules, which will go into effect starting with students entering the College in 2017, will prohibit members of groups such as final clubs, fraternities, and sororities from holding leadership positions in University-recognized teams and clubs, and will also prevent them from receiving College endorsement for fellowships. In his letter announcing the policy, Khurana criticized the single-gender groups, asserting that they are “at odds with Harvard College’s educational philosophy and its commitment to a diverse living and learning experience.”

Some members of single-gender social organizations have vocally opposed the new policy. A number of members of women’s clubs, for instance, were instrumental in organizing the Massachusetts Hall protest. Protesters chanted, “Hear her, Harvard,” as they demanded Harvard revise its policy to protect all-female social clubs; Rebecca Ramos ’17, who is president of a sorority, helped lead the rally, which she said was attended by more than 400 women.

“We feel that it is very important that women have a place they can go that is safe for them and where they can continue to discuss women’s issues in a safe environment,” Ramos said. “We agree that we want to help build a more inclusive environment, and we want to make sure that we are making strides to improve the sexual-assault issues on campus, but we feel that eliminating all women’s spaces is not an effective way to do that.”

In a statement following the protest, College spokesperson Rachael Dane said Harvard had received messages of support and of criticism from many Harvard students and alumni. “We continue to believe that gender discrimination has no place on Harvard’s campus,” she added. “At the same time, we support the right of every community member to express their views.”

Harvard’s fraternities and sororities have the support of the national organizations to which they belong; in a joint statement, leaders of the National Panhellenic Conference, the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, and the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors rebuked Harvard for denying fraternity and sorority members “the basic right of free association” and depriving them of “experiences that foster leadership, personal growth and the very sense of engagement college is designed to create.”

The ranks of the rules’ opponents were further bolstered when a letter from Harry Lewis ’68, Gordon Mackay professor of computer science and a former dean of the College, expressing his concerns about the policy to Khurana, was published in The Harvard Crimson. In his letter, Lewis called some of the final clubs “noxious,” but warned Khurana of his worry that “The good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity.”

But some students and recent graduates said they support Harvard’s policy and hope that it will lead to a more inclusive social atmosphere. Reina Gattuso ’15 said she finds that the notoriously exclusive final clubs “represent this concentration of material power and social prestige in the hands of a few students on campus.” She called the decision to take action against the clubs “a really exciting opportunity for Harvard social life to be vastly reconfigured along more egalitarian lines.”

Gattuso also wrote an op-ed for the Crimson, rebutting the argument that all-female organizations should not be punished along with the historically dominant male final clubs. In an interview, she conceded that “women’s groups have an alternate history to men’s groups,” but maintained that the female clubs can also contribute to issues of discrimination, which, she said, “can be related to what kind of gender norms are persisting in the space.”

Gattuso’s article was accompanied by another op-ed, written by Carl Rogers ’16, which also argued that sororities and women’s final clubs exclude people who do not conform to traditional expressions of gender. In the article, titled “Sanctions on Single-Sex Organizations: A Queer Perspective,” Rogers asked, “Why can’t a female final club or sorority one day become a safe, inclusive space for people of all genders who express feminine gender characteristics?” 

Beyond the editorial section of the Crimson, a number of responses to the policy changes have circulated online. Aaron Slipper ’18 posted an essay of more than 3,000 words on Facebook and later on Dropbox, in which he lambasted the Harvard administration, which, he said in an interview, “in punishing the individual members of these organizations, is manifestly trampling on our rights of association.” He continued to speculate, “If the administration can blacklist people because they belong to an organization that embodies views that the administration finds disagreeable, what’s to stop it from blacklisting Catholics, or Republicans?”

Catherine Katz ’13, a member of Harvard’s chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma, wrote a post called “An Open Letter to Harvard” on the blogging site Medium. In an interview, she explained that she was disappointed by what she saw as Harvard’s failure to solicit adequate input from the community before going forward with the new policy. “I felt like Harvard had really missed an opportunity to encourage students to participate in a debate, to challenge assumptions, and to come together as a community to discuss how everybody can best move forward in this contentious time together,” Katz said. “There are a lot of people here who are really great contributors to the community, whether they’re male or female, and it is very important that all of them have the opportunity to speak and voice their opinions.”

The debate about Harvard’s social organizations has spread far beyond Cambridge, attracting the attention of several prominent news outlets. Charles Lane, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote that what he called Harvard’s “new crackdown” on fraternities, sororities, and final clubs is the embodiment of a sort of “clueless illiberalism.” He went on to speculate that “Only Harvard…could so cunningly manipulate its hyper-competitive students’ ambitions in the cause of social leveling.”

In contrast, The Boston Globe’s editorial board issued a resounding endorsement of Harvard’s plan: “Free association at a private college doesn’t entail a right to participate in organizations that have been shown to endanger classmates.” The Globe went so far in its criticism of the single-gender clubs as to say, “The college has a responsibility to do everything it can to force them to integrate—or disappear.” 

Alumni of single-gender organizations were not unanimous in opposing the policy. Elliot Gerson ’74, who serves as the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust (its prominent scholarship could be denied to fraternity, sorority, and final club members under the new policy) and who was, as an undergraduate, president of the Spee Club, which admitted women for the first time last year, wrote in the Crimson that he approved of the new rules and predicted a future in which they would no longer be the source of controversy. “Some day,” he wrote, “most Harvard final club alumni will look back and wonder how we could accept gender discriminatory membership for so long.”

Aidan Langston ’19 is this magazine’s 2016 Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow.

Read more articles by Aidan Langston

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