Gender Agenda

Last year, Fox Club undergraduates ad­mitted female members; the graduate board ruled the memberships provisional. Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JC

Even as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) intensely debated the College’s proposed rules sanctioning student participation in single-gender final clubs and similar social organizations, which are not officially recognized by Harvard, an outcry arose over overtly sexist behavior by two men’s sports teams—decidedly official Harvard groups, with the substantial institutional budget and staff support that match athletics’ status and assumed role in undergraduate life. Herewith, a summary of the parallel developments during the fall semester.

In May 2016, dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana recommended, and President Drew Faust endorsed, that beginning in the class of 2021, members of unrecognized, single-gender social groups—final clubs, plus sororities and fraternities—be prohibited from holding leadership roles in recognized activities (for example, serving as an athletic team’s captain), or from receiving Harvard’s endorsement for fellowships such as the Rhodes Scholarship (see the details at

In the announcement, Faust wrote, “Over time, Harvard has transformed its undergraduate student body as it has welcomed women, minorities, international students, and students of limited financial means as an increasing proportion of its population. But campus culture has not changed as rapidly as student demography.” Students should be able “to participate in the life of the campus free from exclusion on arbitrary grounds. Although the fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are not formally recognized by the College, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.” Khurana, countering objections that the rules in effect undermined students’ freedom of association, observed that they would still have the right to join discriminatory groups, but that doing so is contrary to Harvard’s values. “These new policies will not prevent undergraduates from choosing their own paths while at Harvard,” he argued. “The recommendations are instead focused exclusively on decisions belonging to the College about what it funds, sponsors, endorses, or otherwise operates under its name.”

But a former dean of the College, McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, did object to this perceived infringement on students’ freedom of association. Colleagues who concurred introduced a motion, debated in the November 1 faculty meeting, “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.” The debate—shaped by the terms and genesis of the College proposal—focused far more on rights of association, governance, and education in values than on gender exclusion per se. (Read a full report, with extensive excerpts from speakers’ remarks, at

Lewis observed that “This motion stands on its own as a statement of principle that we, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, have long honored in practice.…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.” He maintained 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 12 of us probably agree on is that Harvard should avoid making rules restricting students’ civil liberties—of speech, of religion, or of association.” In his view, “the College is creating a blacklist, an index of prohibited organizations.…Join one of the heretical clubs, and you can remain a Harvard student, but there are certain blessings Harvard won’t bestow.”

He introduced a second objection, on governance: “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.…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.”

Finally, he said, “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.…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”—emphasizing education and suasion over rulemaking and sanctions.

Lerner professor of biological sciences Daniel Lieberman, a member of the Faculty Council, opposed the motion. First, he said, Harvard doesn’t need another anti-discrimination policy, because the one it now has is comprehensive. Second, he emphasized the narrow scope of the new rules, 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. 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.” 

Professor of government Eric Nelson said that “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.…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.”

Undergraduate Council president Shaiba Rather and vice president Daniel Banks spoke in favor of the proposed College policy: “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.” Characterizing the issue as personal, 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.” (In polling during council elections later in the month, The Harvard Crimson reported, a majority of students opposed the College policy.) Debate resumed on December 6, but voting was deferred until early February; visit for a full report.


As these exchanges unfolded, enterprising Crimson reporters unveiled a document in which members of the 2012 men’s soccer team evaluated and characterized members of the women’s team in crude, explicitly sexual “scouting reports” (see The fallout—a Crimson essay by former women soccer players confronting the implications of the men’s behavior and inviting them to confront the problem as well; an investigation by the office of general counsel at Faust’s instruction; and the finding that the behavior had continued through 2016, and that participants had not been forthcoming—ultimately resulted in forfeiture of the season for the men’s team, which had been on the verge of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Director of athletics Robert L. Scalise, who had been scheduled to travel to Shanghai for an alumni event during the week of the men’s basketball game there against Stanford, canceled his trip to deal with the crisis. (The men’s cross-country team voluntarily reported similar, if somewhat less egregious, behavior to its coach, the Crimson reported; on December 2, after a University finding that that team’s behavior was not intended to “denigrate or objectify particular women,” it was put on “athletic probation”—training and supervision, but not a limit on competing this season, according to Crimson accounts.)

As it happened, the announcement of the soccer sanctions coincided with a long-planned, inaugural Harvard Alumni Association “Women’s Weekend.” A scheduled panel on women in sports suddenly had a new agenda item, concerning overtly sexist discrimination against female athletes. The forum, held in the former Radcliffe gymnasium, opened with Radcliffe Institute dean Lizabeth Cohen telling listeners, “Certainly much has changed. But damaging social attitudes persist, and not just among the men of the Harvard soccer team.” Moderator Janet Rich-Edwards, associate professor of medicine, told the audience, “I want to take a second to talk about the elephant in the room.” She criticized the male players’ “witless cruelty” and offered as an opposing note these words from the women who wrote the Crimson essay: “We are hopeful that the release of this report will lead to productive conversation and action on Harvard’s campus, within collegiate athletic teams across the country, and into the locker room that is our world.”

It was a beginning, but the airing out of attitudes in locker rooms, and elsewhere, still has a long way to go. 

Read more articles by Jonathan Shaw or John S. Rosenberg

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