Harvard Faculty Debate Final Club Sanctions

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences debates a controversial policy that would punish students in single-gender social groups.

Harry R. LewisPhotograph by Katherine C. Cohen/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Yesterday's regular meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) took up a contentious topic: whether undergraduates have a right to join single-gender social organizations, including final clubs, sororities and fraternities, without penalty. At issue is a new policy, announced last May by dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, that would prohibit students who join such single-gender social organizations from holding leadership positions on athletic teams and in recognized student organizations, such as the Undergraduate Council, choral groups, or publications. Such students would also be ineligible for Rhodes scholarships and other fellowships that require institutional endorsement.

The intent of the policy, set to take effect in 2017 for members of the class of 2021 and those following, is to restrict the influence of gender discrimination on campus culture, its authors explained—but community reaction has so far been mixed. Shortly after the policy was announced, student members of sororities, who felt their right to seek support in all-female groups had been ignored, protested in Harvard Yard outside Massachusetts Hall. A former dean of the College, McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, last semester wrote a letter to Khurana expressing concern that the policy penalized students for their membership in non-Harvard organizations, raising concerns about freedom of association. Then this fall, a town-hall meeting to discuss the sanctions of social club members drew mostly critical comments, the Harvard Crimson reported in October.

This was the backdrop for the discussion at the November 1 faculty meeting, which considered a motion brought by Lewis and 11 other members of the faculty, including Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, Pierce professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert, Smith professor of computer science Margo Seltzer, and Cabot professor of biology Richard Losick. (Losick is a board member of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends civil liberties in the academy.)

Although there was just one motion to consider, the assembly faced at least two principal questions, and a host of lesser ones. The first was whether FAS members—rather than faculty administrators such as Dean Khurana, acting with the president’s approval—have the right to decide on College policies. According to a list of frequently asked questions that circulated widely prior to the meeting (prepared by Lewis and a subset of the motion’s co-sponsors), “the Fifth Statute of the University [states that] Harvard College is in the ‘immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.’ Policies about who may receive fellowship nominations and who may be captain of a team or president of a student group, are therefore matters under the purview of the FAS, whose elected representatives on the Faculty Council were not consulted before this policy was imposed.”

Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas sought to clarify President Drew Faust’s view on that issue before the motion itself was considered. She presides over faculty meetings, and Thomas therefore asked whether she would consider the faculty’s vote on the matter (scheduled to take place in December) binding. 

Faust replied that she found it more helpful to “think of our work together as rooted in notions of shared governance. I believe that faculty and deans and presidents who all come from the faculty share responsibility for this community and its culture, and I believe that our discussion today is intended to illuminate how best to exercise that responsibility.”

The second issue was the motion itself—and the questions it raised about freedom of association as balanced against the issue of gender discrimination. Greek organizations and some, but not all final clubs, are single-gender groups, and are thus not officially recognized by Harvard. But whether they should be considered de facto Harvard organizations or not—legally independent, but comprised solely of Harvard students—is a knottier issue, and one that a number of speakers raised. Opponents of the motion stressed that these organizations are very much part of the Harvard community, and that their negative impacts on student culture cannot be ignored. Supporters emphasized that they are “non-Harvard organizations” over which the College administration has no legal control.

And so the meeting came to the motion itself: “that Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal.”

As Lewis explained, “This motion stands on its own as a statement of principle that we, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, have long honored in practice. As our posted argument notes, when this Faculty considered how to respond to the dilemma posed by ROTC’s discriminatory membership practices coupled with Harvard students’ desire to join as cadets, a faculty committee recommended that we cut off support to ROTC. But the same committee considered and explicitly rejected as ‘excessively paternalistic’ the option of punishing students who chose to join MIT ROTC” [a reference to the Verba report of 1992]. 

Lewis noted “other historical precedents” for not discriminating on this basis, described in documents prepared by the motion’s sponsors. They cite the University’s own rules for hiring prospective faculty, which prohibit questions about membership in any group other than professional organizations. "This motion," he continued: 

is proposed in response to an unprecedented decision to limit opportunities for students who choose to join certain sororities, certain fraternities, and the so-called final clubs, female or male….This is not the right place to discuss the nature and extent of the problems presented by single-gender organizations of Harvard students. I want to stress that the signatories to the motion are not defending any or all of these organizations. Nor are we denying the problems they create. Nor are we against change! About all that the twelve of us probably agree on is that Harvard should avoid making rules restricting students’ civil liberties—of speech, of religion, or of association. For example, the FAS would not sanction students for book purchases they might make at the Harvard Coop or the Harvard Book Store, even if we feared that reading those books posed a grave moral hazard to the students or to the community. We would, I hope, not discriminate against students for adhering to a religion that gives women second-class status. In the same way, Harvard should honor students’ individual right to free association, and that is what our motion states.

It has been argued that the policy does not actually ban students from joining these organizations. Harvard is simply subjecting the offending students, goes the reasoning, to the loss of certain opportunities. But the College is creating a blacklist, an index of prohibited organizations, to use a canon law metaphor. Join one of the heretical clubs, and you can remain a Harvard student, but there are certain blessings Harvard won’t bestow. Only the worthies, the students who have shown their fealty to Harvard by not joining the prohibited clubs, can be team captains or heads of student organizations, or get Harvard’s endorsement for a Rhodes Scholarship. 

This automatic exclusion from an opportunity is really rather bizarre, if you think about what it would mean. For example, the College might interfere with the leadership elections of students in a political organization. An implementation committee is already hammering out the details of how this would all work, but the problem is not in the details—the problem was creating the blacklist in the first place.

I have heard it argued that reforming the all-male final clubs is so important that it justifies this infringement of civil liberties. These clubs aren’t truly private organizations, goes the argument, because they consist solely of Harvard students. And nobody needs them anyway. So given the importance of the objective, it is OK for Harvard to impose its standards on the private choices of students.

We have heard this line of argument before, twice in the past few years, when Harvard has infringed personal liberties of members of this community in service of goals it considered more important. This was the defense when Harvard read faculty email without notifying them, in search of the source of a leak to the Crimson. This was also the defense when Harvard photographed students in the classroom without informing them, because the data would be important to educational research. In each case, the argument went, the infringement was minor, no one suffered any harm, and the goal was important. Both times, Harvard eventually stepped back from this line of defense. Now once again, Harvard is showing an ethical blind spot in arguing that its high-minded ends justify means that would not be tolerated in civil society.

This policy is disappointing both for the dangerous precedent it sets, and for the irregular way it was enacted, by administrative fiat after the last faculty meeting of the year this past spring. Others who will speak after me plan to address these matters, but I must note here that a memo distributed for this meeting mischaracterizes our concerns and incorrectly implies that they have been addressed. We were given no opportunity to review that memo, and it misstates our views. We did not think that the scope of the policy needed to be made clearer. Our concern is that having enacted a college policy of this importance without consulting this body or its elected representatives, the dean and the president would at a later date be empowered to enact other policies, about this matter or others that properly lie within the jurisdiction of this body. 

For my own part, my most serious objection to this policy is neither precedent nor process. My deepest concern is educational. The policy teaches our students, who watch everything we do, bad lessons. It is illiberal—it teaches students that it is OK to sacrifice basic individual freedoms in pursuit of large but only vaguely related social goals. 

Our sights should be set higher. Part of our commitment to diversity is our institutional confidence that students may think differently than we do, and may make private choices of which we disapprove. By all means, if we conclude that students should not visit or join these organizations, let’s tell them they shouldn’t go, and why. Let’s tell them loudly and clearly and persistently. If students behave badly, anywhere, then by all means let us hold them accountable for their actions. And of course, we should continue to adhere to this Faculty’s standards of inclusivity for official Harvard student organizations—the standards we vote every year.

But our long history should have taught us some humility about our capacity to make the best private choices for our students. Let us teach and model our values as best we can. But to make rules for students about their private lives is to admit our own failure to persuade them, through evidence and reason, to live up to our ideals. Or perhaps we just haven’t tried hard enough. I don’t recall freshman advisors or directors of undergraduate studies ever being told that we should warn undergraduates away from sororities. My advisees tell me that they don’t remember the dangers of the final clubs even being mentioned in Freshman orientation.

For all these reasons we move to bar discrimination on the basis of organizational memberships.

Lewis ended his presentation with an unusual request: “As several members of this faculty have expressed to me their fear of being seen voting their conscience in favor of a motion to which the president and the deans are opposed,” he asked that the December vote on the motion be done by paper ballot.

Lerner professor of biological sciences Daniel Lieberman, a member of the Faculty Council, was first to respond, stating that while he appreciated the good intentions of the motion, he opposed it on four grounds. First, he said, Harvard doesn’t need another anti-discrimination policy, because the one it now has is comprehensive. (See the sidebar for the full text of Lieberman’s statement and those of others who provided their comments and and permission to quote their remarks.) Second, he emphasized the narrow scope of the new social club rules (as did other speakers who followed him), noting that it would leave students free to join all sorts of discriminatory and potentially objectionable organizations. “The only exception,” he said, “is that they cannot represent our University in leadership positions while being members of social organizations on campus that discriminate against other members of our community.” He termed the sanctions a revocation of privileges, rather than an imposition of penalties. And finally, he predicted that if the motion passed and the new policy were overturned, “we will face a deluge of unrecognized Greek organizations that will continue to erode our House system, and we will find our campus riven by more, not less, discrimination.”

Unusually, the faculty also heard from two students, seniors Shaiba Rather, president of the Undergraduate Council, and vice president Daniel Banks. Noting that the issue had polarized the campus, they explained their thought process in deciding to officially support Khurana’s policy against the motion by Lewis and his co-sponsors. “The mission of the Undergraduate Council in conjunction with this policy is to dismantle arbitrary exclusion practices…,” they said, taking turns to speak. “Organizations which discriminate on the basis of gender are antiquated.…Women have been attending Harvard College for decades. To allow continued and active discrimination is the failure of the integration process: a promise to merge Radcliffe and Harvard and offer the full resources of this institution to all its students. Gender is a deciding factor….To claim that these institutions are not part of the Harvard community is to hide history and fact behind technicality, to allow the mistakes of our past to trump the opportunities—the equal opportunities—of our future.” Noting that the issue is personal for them, as students, Rather and Banks said they “view this policy as an opportunity for a new chapter in Harvard’s history and hope you embark in the writing process with us.” 

Proponents of the motion were just as eloquent. Professor of government Eric Nelson—who said he had not addressed the faculty since 2007, when he opposed a civility code that he felt threatened academic freedom (the code was not adopted)—asserted that the policy amounted to “an alarming recharacterization of the relationship between the College and its students.” The policy has been justified, he said, “on the grounds that fellowships, team captaincies, and leadership positions in student organizations are not rights, but ‘privileges’ that the University should distribute only to students whose private associational decisions ‘advance and reinforce its values of non-discrimination’ (as construed, I gather, by whoever happens to be dean or president at any given time).” Nelson continued:

Harvard has never before conditioned fellowships, research support, or eligibility for leadership positions on anything other than academic merit and the confidence of one’s peers. It is a policy that has served us very well for a long time, and one which was explicitly reaffirmed by the Verba Committee when it addressed the precisely analogous question of whether students should be sanctioned for off-campus participation in ROTC. This generational good sense is now to be set aside in favor of the view that students who have in no way violated the rules of the College should be sanctioned for associations that run afoul of (what are said to be) our values—and we can look forward to decades of acrimonious and dangerous debate about which associations are in and which are out. After all, it would seem odd if our rules were to allow a member of Massachusetts White Pride to captain the football team, as long as he were not a member of the unacceptably discriminatory Porcellian. The fact that the current dean does not presently wish his rationale for the sanctions to be applied to groups other than final clubs and sororities is, from this point of view, not a great comfort. 

And, of course, the question naturally arises about why such a policy could not likewise apply to faculty. Surely faculty research support and leadership positions—deanships, department chairmanships, and the like—are no less “privileges” in the gift of the University than their undergraduate equivalents. Would we allow these to be doled out only to faculty members whose private affiliations indicate that they share “our values”? Would we pretend for an instant that such a policy could be consistent with basic academic freedom?

But there this is a final consideration. In moving forward with this policy, the administration rejects not only the substantive conclusions of the Verba Committee, but the norms of faculty governance that called it into being. The proposed sanctions represent, without question, the most significant change in the disciplinary posture of the College to be announced in decades—far more significant, for example, than the honor code that we recently implemented by faculty legislation. And yet this matter was never brought to the Faculty. For what do we have a standing Committee on Student Life, if not to vet and debate a policy such as this one, which would affect thousands of undergraduates in material ways? For what do we have a Faculty Council—and for what do we have these meetings of the full Faculty—if the most important decisions facing the FAS are to be announced to us in The Crimson? If we are truly, as our statutes inform us, “in immediate charge” of Harvard College, surely it is time that we started to act like it. 

Let me close by saying that I hold the president and the dean of the College in high regard, and I have no doubt that, in formulating this policy, they have acted from the best of motives. But I believe that they have made a mistake—one that we now have the opportunity, as well the obligation, to correct. 

Another faculty speaker from the floor emphasized that the new social-organizations policy is consistent with admissions policies, the honor code, and course requirements in “creating a social context that forms students.” She said she did not think it “out of the norm” to teach inclusiveness and to convey that final clubs and sororities don’t “represent our aspirations.” 

But Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology David Haig 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.”

Haig also referred to survey data that have been used to suggest that final clubs and other single-gender organizations are, per capita, a particular locus of sexual harassment and assault. Critics of the analysis of that data, including Lewis, have faulted the methodology used to support some of the assertions most widely cited in the media. Haig added an additional concern over the use of statistical associations to justify a policy that punishes all members of a group. “Racial and religious profiling are commonly justified by statistical associations with crime. Are we justified,” he asked, “in sanctioning all members of female-only and male-only groups because of statistical associations and the criminal behaviors of some members of some groups?” 

His third point had to do with student autonomy, he said. “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.”

Coolidge professor of history Maya Jasanoff then rose to speak. She began by thanking Lewis and the other sponsors of the motion because, she said, it is “tremendously important for us to discuss this sort of thing in the faculty. I do wish that there had been an opportunity for it to be discussed by members of the Faculty Council and the faculty before its announcement in the spring, as I very much welcome the discussion that we are having right now.” Noting that it would be difficult to find anyone in the room who doesn’t believe in the principle of non-discrimination, and affirming her own belief in that principle, she nevertheless rejected the idea that the new policy constitutes “a massive infringement on the freedom of association.” There are two different visions of what this policy is about, she said. One asserts that a fundamental principle is at stake and that “students burning books in the Yard is a matter of weeks away.” The other is the vision that she and others who support the policy hold, “which is that this is a rather narrow statement of jurisdiction,” and that it is therefore appropriate for “members of the College administration to take steps with respect to the protection of student interests in these organizations…by stepping in with these guidelines.”

She then asked her colleagues to turn their attention to the room in which they sat, its walls dominated by portraits of white men. This, she said, “is a representation of a Harvard that is very different from the Harvard that I see seated in the room.” The portraits are “not a vision of what Harvard is now and what Harvard is going to be,” she said. “I think that it is incumbent on Harvard to set standards of conduct in the world and conduct in academic life…supportive of the idea that everybody should be able to belong to everything in this University.” The policy, she said, is a “step by the administration toward creating the kind of inclusive Harvard that I am very proud to belong to.”

In his turn, Richard Losick, speaking against the policy and in support of the motion, invoked the fundamental values of the academy. “The University is a community based on the free exchange of ideas. The way to challenge ideas we don’t agree with, or membership in organizations we don’t like, is by debate and open discussion and by creating attractive alternatives, not by coercion.” 

Last to speak for the day was professor of Japanese History David Howell, who began by explaining why the Faculty Council had not voted on the motion, and perhaps why the speakers who preceded him spoke in favor of the policy or in favor of the motion, rather than “against” the motion. A “no” vote would suggest that the faculty was in favor of discrimination, he pointed out (imagining the newspaper headlines the next day)—which was not true. But on the question of jurisdiction, he stated that the idea that single-gender organizations like final clubs are truly independent entities, completely separate from Harvard, is nonsense. Their membership, he emphasized, is limited to Harvard College students and alumni, and they have been closely tied to Harvard throughout their histories. They are, for all practical purposes, Harvard student organizations, he felt, and “should be subject to the same rules that govern those that are recognized by the University.” 

With that, Faust suspended discussion, noting that although “a long list of individuals” still wished to speak, the faculty needed to hold a degree meeting, and that “there would be an opportunity to speak on this matter again” in December—when the faculty is expected to vote on the matter.

Read more articles by Jonathan Shaw

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