The Intellectual Clash Over Final Clubs

Faculty members debate final clubs and freedom of association. 

Harvard College administrators may not have anticipated the fierce and intensely public debate that would erupt in response to the announcement at the end of April that members of historically male final clubs, Greek organizations, and other off-campus, gender-exclusive social groups would soon face heavy sanctions. The Monday after the policy was announced—in the heart of reading period, and normally an exceptionally difficult time to persuade students to come out of their rooms—hundreds of Harvard women gathered outside Massachusetts Hall in one of the largest protests in the Yard in recent memory. A few weeks later, after students had dispersed for the summer, a group of 12 professors filed a strongly worded motion against the sanctions, to be brought before the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the fall.

The resolution frames the issue as a question of academic freedom and the freedom to associate: “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join,” it reads, “nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political, or other affinity groups they join.” It suggests that sanctions against social groups depart from University practice: “[T]hroughout the history of the College a student has been able to be at once a full member of the Harvard community and also a member of other communities with different policies.” Signatories include former College dean Harry Lewis, the Gordon McKay professor of computer science and a frequent critic of the University, and other prominent faculty members: Porter University Professor Helen Vendler (the poetry critic), Pierce professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert, and Cabot professor of biology Richard Losick, among others. Losick sits on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends civil liberties in the academy (often focusing on conservative causes).

Earlier in May, Lewis had written a letter to College dean Rakesh Khurana to the same effect: Harvard properly enforces policies of nondiscrimination in its own communities, he argued, but punishing students for belonging to outside communities that don’t share the same values marks a different and unprecedented step. “The notion that we can use membership in an organization as a proxy for full commitment to Harvard’s values seems to me to set a very dangerous precedent,” Lewis said in an interview. “We respond to what people do, not what organizations they belong to.” Other faculty members linked the values of democratic society with those of the University: “Harvard is one of the institutions meant to support a free society,” Gilbert said. “Because we’re a private institution, we can do certain things public institutions can’t, but it doesn’t mean we should.”

This critique—that it’s illiberal to punish students for their associations, rather than their own actions—clashes with the principle that has animated anti-final club and sexual-assault activism at Harvard: that it’s the institution of the male-controlled final club itself that promotes violence against women and ought to be dismantled. A recent Harvard Crimson op-ed by the founders of Our Harvard Can Do Better, a sexual-assault activist group that two years ago filed a Title IX complaint against Harvard for its sexual-assault policies, reflects this view: “Rape culture functions on individual, institutional, and cultural levels,” they wrote. “On a cultural level, we must eliminate sexist, racist, and classist power structures to create inclusive and safe environments.” This logic appears to have influenced the University’s position on final clubs: a widely publicized report of the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention earlier this year condemned final clubs and urged the administration to address “the disturbing practical and cultural implications they present in undergraduate life.” It draws on an earlier University sexual-assault survey conducted in the spring of 2015 that 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. Seventeen percent of assaults reported in the survey took place in spaces used by single-gender social organizations, compared to 75 percent in dorms. (Critics have questioned the University’s reliance on correlations in both reports.) 

Asked what Harvard could do short of sanctions to limit the influence of the final clubs, which he and other professors involved in the motion agree have a harmful effect on College culture, Lewis responded, “If students are forming associations that are unwise or wrong, we should be taking an educational approach rather than creating sanctions.” Gilbert expanded that argument, endorsing explicitly the logic of market competition over top-down regulation: “The final clubs are private organizations that are not ours to rein in,” he said. “We can create alternatives that are more attractive. In America, when you want your competitor to go out of business, you can’t bomb their factory. What you do is create a better product, and all the customers come to you. So why aren’t we working with students to come up with a plan to create an alternative to final clubs?” Critiques of Harvard’s policy toward final clubs rarely have so straightforwardly collapsed moral and market logic, but the same principle underlies other anti-regulatory responses as well: that a free market of social options can produce the socially optimal outcome. “Rather than focusing on efforts to create a social scene from the top down,” the Crimson’s editorial board argued, “the administration should give students the resources and the freedom to create an inclusive alternative.” 

Faculty weren’t formally consulted in the decision to sanction single-gender groups—a process that some were quick to argue points to the diminishing role of professors in shared governance. “I’ve been at Harvard for a very long time,” said Losick. “Increasingly, the University seems to be run by deans and administrators with less and less input from faculty. I think this is a view shared by some, if not many, colleagues.” But Gilbert pointed out that the sanctions are a matter of social, not academic, policy, and don’t necessarily call for faculty input (reflecting instead the growing role of the University in nonacademic matters).

The College administration might have avoided some of the controversy of the last few weeks had it targeted final clubs alone, rather than all unrecognized gender-exclusive groups (though there may have been legal barriers to doing so). Losick called himself “no fan of the final clubs,” a view that was echoed emphatically by every faculty member interviewed for this story. And much as President Drew Faust and Khurana have represented the sanctions as a narrow policy, they’ve been criticized for its overly broad application, targeting single-gender groups that have shown no proven harm on undergraduate culture, and that many students value. Said Lewis, “I haven’t heard any evidence that belonging to Kappa Kappa Gamma [a sorority] creates a dangerous environment.” 

One of the largest victories of the anti-final club and sexual-assault activism of the last few years might indeed be the widespread stigma that’s now associated with the all-male clubs. Fifty-nine percent of this year’s graduating seniors said they have an unfavorable opinion of final clubs, according to the Crimson’s annual senior survey. Just 23 percent said they had a favorable view. Whatever questions the social-club sanctions have raised about the role of the University in students’ lives, it’s difficult to find many public voices willing to defend the clubs.

Read more articles by Marina N. Bolotnikova

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