Final-Club Fissures

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences remains sharply divided about sanctions and multiple, conflicting goals.

Professors Louis Menand and Margo Seltzer staked out opposing points of view at the December 6 faculty meeting.
Photographs by Kris Snibbe/HPAC and Jon Chase/HPAC

Ever since President Drew Faust and College dean Rakesh Khurana announced last May that the College would sanction future undergraduates who are members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations (final clubs, fraternities, and sororities), students have objected; some faculty members have proposed a motion aimed at expressing opposition to and (they hope) nullifying the sanctions or forcing them to be withdrawn; and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has been consumed by debating the issue at its November 1 and December 6 meetings (read about the context for the latter meeting here). As reported, the debate on December 6 extended past adjournment, and rather than have the chance to vote on the issue, faculty members now face further discussion at the first FAS meeting of the new year, on February 7.

A detailed report on the December 6 meeting appears here, to present as full a record as possible of the issues and opinions for interested members of the community. Combined with the magazine’s account of the November 1 debate, this report will enable readers to keep in mind the context for the conversation as it has evolved, and will continue.

Contending Worldviews

The sanctions apply to undergraduates matriculating next fall, in the class of 2021 and beyond: if they join one of the unrecognized social organizations, they would be prohibited from serving in a leadership capacity in a recognized activity or club, such as a sports team, a chorus, or a publication; and would be denied the required College endorsement when applying for fellowships such as Rhodes or Marshall scholarships. In a very summary fashion, it is possible to say that the pending sanctions have prompted sharply differing opinions to emerge on at least these issues:

  • Do the sanctions improperly intrude on students’ freedom of association (joining a legal social club)?
  • Are gender-exclusive student social organizations tolerable within or in close association with an inclusive college?
  • Is it permissible, by administrative order, to withhold academic recognition (the fellowship letters) for participation in a legal, social activity?
  • If the sanctions force the unrecognized social organizations to become gender-neutral in admissions—presumably their intended effect (co-educating what are now male or female social clubs; discouraging membership, and challenging the status of, fraternities and sororities)—would that change improve undergraduates’ social lives?
  • Will ending the gender-exclusive membership of the older, well-endowed men’s final clubs (which have valuable facilities in Harvard Square, some of which loom large as party venues) have any effect on their other exclusive characteristics?
  • Would the sanctions and resulting changes in club membership, if any, reduce the incidence of sexual assault?
  • And would the sanctions impose other unwanted, collateral effects? For example, on women’s final clubs and sororities (less well-established than male final clubs), whose members defend them as important sources of support and friendship. Because they lack the financial assets and real-estate holdings of the venerable male clubs, they presumably do not exercise the same effect on socializing among undergraduates at large.

As the debate has proceeded, other uncertainties have emerged. For example, it is not precisely known how many undergraduates are even affiliated with the social groups affected by the sanctions (their member rosters are not public—an obvious potential challenge in implementing the sanctions). An administration FAQ distributed for the December 6 meeting cites “an estimated 25-30 percent of undergraduates” as members. A student estimate puts the cohort at somewhat more than 20 percent of undergraduates—and suggests that the number of women in female-only final clubs and sororities now surpasses the members of male-only final clubs and fraternities.

There are seemingly irreconcilable views on these matters:

  • Discrimination: against whom? Proponents of the sanctions say that gender-exclusive final clubs and fraternities and sororities are inherently discriminatory, and therefore should be sanctioned, by withdrawing other privileges students enrolled in the College enjoy. Critics say that the sanctions themselves constitute impermissible discrimination against students who are exercising their free choice to pursue a lawful social association.
  • Governance: who decides? The College and University administrations have promulgated the sanctions, proceeded to organize a committee to see to their implementation, and received support from the Harvard Corporation to do so. Proponents of the opposing motion argue strongly that oversight of student conduct, and regulation and discipline of undergraduate life, are matters belonging constitutionally (in Harvard’s statutes) to the faculty itself; absent explicit delegation, therefore, the sanctions cannot be promulgated and implemented without faculty discussion and authorization (a further benefit of which, supporters add, might be more effective policies and procedures to curb unwanted practices and conditions and to promote undergraduate social life).

Note that no one participating in the faculty’s debate so far has made the case for the status quo. Faculty critics of the College sanctions are themselves, in many cases, long-time, severe critics of the final clubs and their effects on undergraduate social life. But they variously raise objections to sanctions that punish students academically and otherwise for exercising their freedom of association; to the manner in which the sanctions were crafted and promulgated—in other words, governance; and to the likely efficacy of the sanctions, given other challenges to undergraduate social life that students and adults alike have identified.

The issues being raised, therefore, are much broader, and invoke deeper passions, than casual observers might expect from the terms of the sanctions themselves, or the rather straightforward language of the motion advanced by the sanctions’ critics.

(Note: The following account of the December 6 debate follows FAS rules for reporting on faculty meetings: speakers from the floor can be identified by name and associated with direct quotes from or paraphrases of their remarks only with their permission. Where speakers have shared prepared remarks, they are presented in full except where permission to do so has been withheld. Note: This paragraph no longer pertains, given the revision effective as of December 12, 2016, at 8:10 A.M.)

The Faculty’s Policies

During the question period that is on the agenda for each meeting, Beren professor of government Eric M. Nelson, an opponent of the sanctions, addressed a question to President Faust. Some critics of the faculty motion being debated have said that existing policies already prevent discrimination, making the motion itself duplicative; Nelson alluded to an op-ed by professor of Japanese history David L. Howell, a member of the Faculty Council and docket committee. Nelson said:

My question concerns the debate that we are shortly to resume about the proposed sanctions on students who are members of particular private clubs. Since we last met, a member of the Faculty Council has suggested in the Crimson that the Lewis motion is improperly formulated because redundant. That is, he claims that the university’s existing non-discrimination policy already prohibits discrimination on the basis of organizational membership. As I read the non-discrimination policy, it does not. To be sure, it forbids discrimination on the basis of any number of characteristics—race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on—but organizational membership is not on the list. That said, if you are prepared to say that you interpret the existing non-discrimination policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of club membership, then the motion is obviously otiose and should be withdrawn. But, of course, it would also follow in that case that the proposed sanctions are in violation of our non-discrimination policy, and should themselves be withdrawn without any further action of the Faculty. So could I ask you to clarify for us whether you interpret the existing non-discrimination policy of the University to prohibit discrimination on the basis of membership in lawful organizations?

Faust, inquiring whether Nelson was referring to University or FAS policy, and determining that the language derived from FAS’s handbook, said she would “defer” rather than sharing a judgment on the non-discrimination policy (and therefore its applicability to the current sanctions and motion).

The Motion: “Harvard has never…punished students for joining a club.”

After a procedural skirmish (Lane professor of the classics Richard F. Thomas moved that the faculty consider the motion on the sanctions ahead of other business on the agenda, to make more time for debate; the docket committee opposed his proposal; the faculty members present voted to take up the debate on the sanctions motion), Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis (a former dean of Harvard College) introduced the motion as follows:

Madam President: On behalf of 11 faculty colleagues as well as myself, I move 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.

Faust then moved to have FAS dean Michael D. Smith speak, which would have terminated Lewis’s remarks on the motion, the debate from the prior meeting, and documents disseminated to the faculty in preparation for the present meeting. But realizing that Lewis, as the maker of the motion, still had the floor, she returned to him, and he delivered his remarks:

This is a simple motion. It says that students should not be punished for joining a club. If you agree with that proposition, you should vote for the motion.

Contrary to the impression that may have been created by the student speakers at the last meeting, students are opposed to the policy about single gender organizations by a nearly 2 to 1 ratio. There are indeed many students who are rightly concerned about the final clubs and their effect on the student community, but in the recent electoral campaign for the presidency of the Undergraduate Council, 3 out of the 4 tickets were opposed to the policy, including the ticket that won. Which raises an interesting question. The newly elected president of the UC, who is here with us today, is herself a member of an unrecognized women’s club. Should that happen a few years from now, would the College really move to unseat or delegitimize the freely elected president of the student government? What would that teach our students about “Harvard’s values”?

I address a number of the counter-arguments in the second Q&A [disseminated by the administration], which was prepared for this meeting, so I can be quite brief today.

Some argue that the motion is overly broad. To the contrary, the motion does nothing at all except to restore the status quo ante May of this year, when the sanctions against members of certain clubs were announced. No one has provided a counterexample since I said this a month ago: Harvard has never in modern times punished students for joining a club. And multiple Harvard precedents support this principle. It seems very odd, for example, to punish students for doing something that Harvard explicitly prohibits us from asking job candidates about: Do you belong to the wrong club?

Some argue that the sanctions are not punishment, but merely deprive students of a privilege. That twists words in a manner worthy of Lewis Carroll. If you are a stellar student who has earned the profound respect of your professors and your peers, and you join a sorority, of course it is punitive for Harvard to say you can’t be a Rhodes candidate, or captain of the softball team, or president of the Democratic Club, or even of the all-female Radcliffe Pitches. And of course, such a punishment constitutes discrimination on the basis of club membership. If Harvard refused to endorse black students for Rhodes Scholarships, that would be racial discrimination. If Harvard refuses to endorse club members for Rhodes Scholarships, that will be discrimination on the basis of belonging to a club. I know Professor Helen Vendler plans to pursue this point.

It is absurd to suggest that this motion is unclear or that it is badly worded. The only lack of clarity arises from the president’s refusal to give a straightforward answer to Professor Thomas’s question at the last meeting as to whether she would honor the faculty vote.

The Faculty should understand that although the policy announced last May is touted as a response to problems of misogyny and sexual assault, it would be utterly ineffective in that regard—a point I know Professor Barbara Grosz hopes to address if she is able to make it to this meeting. In fact, the majority of students who would stand to be punished are women—the members of sororities and the women’s final clubs, who outnumber men in comparable organizations. It is argued in response to that that women don’t need those clubs because Harvard has its own approved women’s clubs—which are if anything even better, since they admit men! Surely that does not justify punishing women simply for joining their own clubs. I know Professor Margo Seltzer wishes to speak to this point.

We are an educational institution. Our best and most natural strategy on any contentious matter is always to teach the truth. We hear that the proposed sanctions against single-gender organizations are needed because everything else has been tried, but how can that be? The final clubs are said to be unsafe but the College hasn’t warned women to stay away from them. It also hasn’t advised men to avoid discriminatory associations that may in their later lives compromise their career prospects. I know Professor Barbara Barbara Grosz wishes to address whether this policy is even a serious attempt to combat sexual assault. And we have an opportunity here to teach our students how decisions should be made about important social issues, how to identify the problem clearly and specifically and then collaboratively develop a well targeted solution. A properly charged group of students and faculty could come up with a way to solve our actual problems without infringing anyone’s personal freedoms.

Which brings us to the governance question. The statutes clearly state that the College, and specifically discipline of students, are under the jurisdiction of this body. The alarm that went off when the president and the dean announced the new policy last May without properly consulting the faculty was not silenced when the president declined to give a clear answer to Professor Thomas’s question. The Senior Fellow’s recent statement to the Crimson that the sanctions were in place to stay only exacerbated the alarm about who was in charge of discipline of undergraduates—a point on which I know Professor James Engell wishes to expand.

Finally, I was informed last night, on the eve of this meeting and more than six months after submitting this motion, that the Docket Committee will move to postpone this motion indefinitely. I want to be sure that the Faculty understands what a motion for indefinite postponement entails. According to Robert’s Rules, and I quote, a “motion to Postpone Indefinitely is in effect an indirect rejection of the main motion.” There is nothing more to it than that. Robert’s Rules state that a motion for indefinite postponement “opens the merits of the main question to debate to as great an extent as if the main question were before the assembly.” In other words, the motion to postpone indefinitely will be simply another vote on our motion, except that you have to remember to vote no on the motion to postpone if you support our motion. And if the motion to postpone is defeated, as I hope it will be, then you have to vote yes when our motion comes to a vote. A vote on a motion to postpone is equivalent to a vote on the original motion, only with yes and no reversed. That is, the motion to postpone indefinitely will not change the debate at all, but will require us to have two successive secret ballots rather than one.

Colleagues, I regret this waste of your time. In fact, I regret that I am making this motion at all and that we are holding this debate. My co-sponsors and I have tried repeatedly to spare the Faculty this unpleasant spectacle.  We have offered to withdraw our motion if the President would simply agree to rescind the sanctions and remand the important issue of how to deal with the final clubs to an appropriate student-faculty committee.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this offer has been declined.  The President herself has now stated publicly that the policy is imperfect and that she would welcome constructive discussion of alternatives.  Since this meeting of the full Faculty is obviously not the proper forum in which to explore and carefully vet such alternatives, the way forward we suggested, for the president to withdraw the sanctions and remand the matter to an appropriate committee, seems clearly to be the right one.  But here we are. If the president insists on a vote, then vote we must.  A basic principle of our academic society now asks to be reaffirmed, and we hope that you will choose to reaffirm it.

Madam President, junior colleagues who are present, among others, will understandably be reluctant to oppose the administration publicly on this matter. So that they can vote their conscience, I will at the appropriate time ask for paper ballots on both the forthcoming postponement motion and on our original motion.

Indefinite Postponement: “Do we as a faculty wish to be bound to the motion?”

[A note on parliamentary procedure: The motion to postpone indefinitely, as introduced by the docket committee (see below), becomes debatable, and the debate can concern both postponement and the substantive merits of the underlying motion subject to possible postponement. But postponement can be fatal for an underlying substantive motion because, as a handout to the faculty noted, “The adoption of a motion to postpone indefinitely indicates that the voters have decided not to decide.” A motion to reconsider such a decision can be made in the future, but only by someone who voted on the prevailing side. Thus, if the faculty votes for indefinite postponement, the motion by Lewis and colleagues to challenge the sanctions as impermissibly discriminatory will, for all practical purposes, be killed without professors voting on it per se.]

Dean Smith then reported that the Faculty Council (a group of professors elected by their peers who both interact with administrators to shape policy and vet legislation and offer opinions to the faculty as a whole) had, extraordinarily, been unable to come to a vote on the motion (see the Howell op-ed, linked above). He then turned to docket committee vice chair Parimal G. Patil, professor of religion and Indian philosophy.

 Patil reported as follows:

1. On behalf of the Faculty Council, I move to postpone the Lewis motion indefinitely. A vote in favor of this motion to postpone indefinitely means that the Faculty as whole agrees not to vote on the Lewis motion at all. This is, in effect, what the Faculty Council chose to do when asked to consider the Lewis motion a few weeks ago. Today’s motion to postpone indefinitely formalizes this option for the Faculty as a whole. The Faculty Council vote in support of this motion to postpone indefinitely is 13 in favor, 1 opposed, and 3 abstentions.

A motion to postpone indefinitely is a standard parliamentary action that is defined in Robert's Rules of Order. It is a mechanism whereby an organization can decide not to vote on a motion that has been brought before it. There is a short description of this type of motion in the materials that were handed out before the meeting.

2. It is very important to emphasize, at the outset, that this motion to postpone the Lewis motion indefinitely does not assume any particular position on the College policy on unrecognizedsingle-gender social organizations, the desirability of the policy, or its legitimacy. Neither does it restrict the ability of the Faculty to discuss the policy at this meeting or in the future. Equally important to emphasize is that this motion to postpone indefinitely does not take a stand on the specific issues with which the Lewis motion is concerned.

The motion to postpone indefinitely asks us to consider just one question: Do we, as a Faculty, wish to be bound to the Lewis motion as the instrument through which we engage with and respond to the College policy? For various reasons, which I will outline below, members of theFaculty Council feel that we need to reframe our discussion and debate of the policy in a more direct and less divisive manner. It is better, therefore, that we not vote on the Lewis motion itself and, instead, vote to postpone it, indefinitely.

3. Personally, I am grateful to Professor Lewis for making sure that we, as a Faculty, think deeply about the College policy, the contours of our shared commitment to non-discrimination and freedom of association, and how to understand the relationship between them. Our discussion in Faculty Council and on the Faculty floor has helped me to see how much we have in common. Many of us are deeply concerned about the negative impact that final clubs now have on our students, and we recognize that we need to act. Yet, we also have questions about the College policy and are unsure about how to proceed. Along with my colleagues on Faculty Council, I support the motion to postpone the Lewis motion indefinitely because I believe that voting on the Lewis motion is not a constructive way forward.

The Council identified at least three reasons why, as a framework for engaging the College policy, the Lewis motion is flawed: (1) The motion is misaligned with its target: its target is the new College policy, but the motion does not explicitly mention the policy. One consequence of this is that taking a position on the Lewis motion only gives the appearance of taking a position on the College policy. In fact, it does not do so in any useful way; (2) Any actual impact that the Lewis motion may have on the new policy is entirely unclear. We do not know what impact, if any, adopting the Lewis motion will have on the College policy itself; (3) What we do know is that neither a positive nor negative vote on the Lewis motion is the interests of the FAS. A vote against the Lewis Motion will appear as a vote in favor of discrimination. A vote in support of the Lewis motion may also appear that way, by implying that the Harvard faculty, after much discussion, debate, and public spectacle, voted against discrimination by voting to support those who discriminate.

4. A vote in favor of the motion to postpone indefinitely is a vote to free ourselves from the constraints imposed upon us by the Lewis motion and, thereby, reframe our discussion of the College policy in a more direct, constructive, and effective manner.

As debate proceeds next February, it will be interesting to see whether faculty members address that suggestion. The Lewis motion originated in part because its authors felt the sanctions policy was promulgated without consulting the faculty, as discussed below. The committee charged with implementing the policy is proceeding ahead at full speed, The Harvard Crimson reports—aiming to make recommendations during the spring semester. And the Faculty Council has not, in public, suggested whether, or how, it advises the faculty as a whole to address the sanctions in other ways.

A Critique: “The College seeks to get rid of long-standing discrimination.”

The next speaker to address matters substantively was the faculty dean of Mather House, Christie McDonald, Smith professor of French language and literature and professor of comparative literature:

I am in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and I am against discrimination. But I cannot support the motion put forward by Harry Lewis and colleagues, because although it is a statement of general principle (as it is written), it indirectly targets the recent policy on membership in unrecognized, single-gender social organizations and implicitly argues for a return to the status quo. I do not believe that the College is discriminating, but rather that the College seeks to get rid of long-standing discrimination on the part of some clubs.

As faculty dean of a House, I would like to emphasize that our residential house system is one of the most inclusive in the nation (as one of the distinguished members of the Corporation once remarked to me). Yet student comments documented in the binder with the history of discussions about final clubs (recently released to the faculty) [read excerpts here], confirm what students have told me and others about the toxic atmosphere that the discriminatory practices of these clubs have created.

In the Report on the Final Clubs dated Feb. 19, 1997, then dean of students Archie Epps wrote: “The final clubs became independent of Harvard in December, 1984, when the College pressed them to adhere to the nondiscrimination policies that apply to all recognized student organizations and the clubs preferred to remain single-sex rather than allowing women to become members.” In 1998, then dean of the College Harry Lewis reiterated: “Harvard severed its ties with the Final Clubs when they collectively refused to adhere to one of the minimal expectations for recognized student organizations: that they not discriminate in their membership on the basis of ‘race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation or physical disability’’(my emphasis). He continued: “The unequal status of women at the clubs—unwelcome as members, but welcome for the amusement of the male members at their parties—continues to be of great concern to the College. A club that prohibited membership of Jews or African Americans, inviting them in only for the entertainment of the club members, would be the object of universal revulsion here, but the final clubs try to attach some cachet to their exclusion of women as members but inclusion of women as guests. (Harry Lewis, “The Final Clubs”—invited column for Harvard Independent, October 28, 1998) It has been almost 20 years since the report and the steps to try to remediate “reports of inappropriate behavior occurring at various final clubs.”

I believe that we as a faculty are lucky that the president of the University, our first woman president, and the dean of the College have come together to find a way to rectify a situation that has been concerning deans, then masters and now faculty deans over all these many years. I deeply respect the co-chairs of the implementation committee, and the members of that committee, who will be looking into how to address many important questions about the transition for organizations toward inclusive membership as well as how to handle transgressions.

As faculty deans of Mather House, who do our best to ensure a strongly supportive and inclusive environment for our students, Mike Rosengarten and I support the amendment to postpone the motion indefinitely.

Governance: “One might as well shred the Statutes of the University.”

Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell then delivered extended remarks on the governance question: who is responsible for overseeing student life and discipline? (His substantive suggestions—that the sanctions be withdrawn, and then the motion be withdrawn, so a faculty-student committee could craft recommendations on social life for presentation to the FAS as a whole—were advanced privately to Faust, Smith, and Khurana by at least one other member of the faculty before the meeting, but not accepted. This suggests some difficulty with proceeding toward an alternative course of action, as the Faculty Committee and docket committee appeared to advocate in moving for indefinite postponement of the motion, as discussed above). Engell said:

Colleagues, I’ve read the disturbing compendium from senior surveys, which highlights the terrible problems we as a faculty must face. These problems demand action. Let us tackle them. Let us do what we did previously in FAS faculty-student committees to formulate policies and take action, rather than agree to questionable, punitive sanctions, a policy never discussed by us in this room—and deliberated now only because of Professor Lewis’s motion.

The problem is sexual assault and the context of College social life, currently an unacceptable situation. Let us talk openly about that. I’ve done so in classes and advising. But changing how we treat each other as members of this community is not well served by punishing students for exercising their established rights as citizens and by sanctioning them not for personal culpability, but for legal, personal associations. These sanctions do constitute a form of discrimination.

The president declined to agree that a vote of this faculty would be dispositive. Since the matter regards student sanctions, administration and discipline—denial of positions and endorsements involves administration and discipline—that answer is disturbing. It departs from College and FAS precedent and practice. The president invoked “shared governance” at our last meeting. But the manner in which this policy was generated avoided coming to this faculty, it avoided discussion in this room, it avoided any faculty vote, it avoided open voicing of faculty views consistent with past shared governance, especially regarding administration and discipline. The only reason we are discussing policy today is because of Professor Thomas’s question [on November 1]. A refusal to accept a vote of this faculty as dispositive will change the role of this faculty into a mere consulting body in matters not only traditionally but statutorily invested in this faculty alone, not in any individual officer of the University or in any body appointed by an officer. No member of the Corporation, including the Senior Fellow, ought to ignore, bypass, or override the Statutes of the University.

Let me quote the 5th Statute:

“A Faculty may, at its discretion, delegate any of its powers relating to ordinary matters of administration and discipline…to Administrative Boards or other committees…. Every such Board or committee shall be subject to the authority of the Faculty from which its powers have been delegated.”

This faculty never delegated, nor was even asked to delegate, any of its powers “of administration and discipline” to any task force, board, or committee. This faculty delegated no powers to an implementation committee and no powers to the president or the dean. The fifth Statute explicitly regards “the exercise of disciplinary powers” as belonging solely and exclusively to a faculty, and nowhere do the Statutes invest any disciplinary powers in the president, a dean, the Corporation, or any other body or individual unless expressly delegated by an entire faculty—with one exception and one exception only, deliberately stated: if a student can be shown to have violated “the University-wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities,” then the president and the dean of the student’s faculty have power to suspend that student. This unique and explicit exception to the power of the Faculty to administer “all proper means of discipline” indicates that there are no other exceptions stated, implied, or contemplated. The fifth statute states, a “Faculty may delegate annually any or all of its powers to a smaller representative body presided over by the President,” a provision that assumes that in order for such power to leave the hands of a faculty then that faculty must expressly delegate it “according to rules approved by the Governing Boards.” This faculty did not in any way delegate its administrative or disciplinary powers with regard to the matter before us. According to Statutes of the University this faculty retains all such powers. No other body or officer can possess them.

The 11th Statute reinforces the 5th: “Discipline  The several Faculties have authority to impose fines and levy assessments for damages done to property and to inflict, at their discretion, all proper means of discipline.” No other body, person, or officer—and no member of the Corporation—has that inherent power.

This power to discipline degree candidates is so paramount in the Statutes that it is articulated repeatedly with explicit reference in different Statutes. Not even control of its own curriculum is so firmly and exclusively invested in a faculty.

What has happened since last spring I believe can be dangerous to the University and to this faculty. It is no understatement to say that it threatens the constitutional fabric. This may not seem evident today, but in retrospect may be seen as a turning point in the governance of this University, and it would not be a good turning point.

I do not question the motives of anyone in this matter. I applaud the motives of all concerned, of the president and dean who wish to reduce sexual assault and to end what they regard as exclusive, discriminatory free association too close to home; but they are misguided in the initial manner of doing so; I applaud the motives of former Dean Lewis and his co-sponsors to assert the rights and powers of this faculty and to remain constant to principles established by the College and University and long followed, principles reaffirmed in the Committee on College Life in the 1980s and the ROTC committee of the 1990s. However, even a positive vote for Professor Lewis’s motion will not alter the violation of the University Statutes that will have taken place, especially if the president declines to grant that a vote of this faculty in matters of “administration and discipline” is authoritative.

Let the president and the dean withdraw the planned sanctions and the implementation committee. Let Professor Lewis withdraw his motion. Let the faculty then seriously take up reducing sexual assault, and the question of students who belong to single-gender organizations in proximity to the College. Or, if this faculty wishes to delegate its statutory, sole authority in this matter, let it do so by an explicit vote. Let the faculty do the hard work to reduce and prevent sexual assault and to improve the social life in the College.

Otherwise, we enter a landscape in which one might as well shred the Statutes of the University, for they will not matter at all. The Statutes will then have been not only clearly but permanently violated; the president and the dean will have consciously confirmed that, and this faculty will have acquiesced. This faculty will have let its solely defined power under the University Statutes be overridden.

Some colleagues may say that we should not assert this power, especially if we happen as individuals to agree with the sanctions. That I think would be a grave error and would mean that once this power is relinquished and appropriated, and done so contrary to practice and Statute, such power could be appropriated again with citation of precedent. The Rubicon would have been crossed.

I’ve not today made myself popular, nor won the liking of the president or the dean, or of those on the task force perhaps, or the implementation committee, nor of Professor Lewis and his supporters, nor of those ready to oppose his motion. Perhaps I stand on an island. I am most concerned about the governance of the University.

Senior Fellow Lee is quoted as saying, “I think rather than getting into a struggle over who has the right to do what, I think what [President Faust] said is we have a shared responsibility to solve these issues. I think the first major step was the policy.”

The Senior Fellow of the Corporation is saying that it is not worth deciding who, or what body, in the University, has the right to do what. He does not reference the Statutes. They do not favor his view. The Statutes do not struggle on this matter. The Statutes are clear. Only this faculty has the power to act in this matter. Yes, we have a shared responsibility to solve these issues. But the power to discipline—power is the word used by the Statues—is vested in this faculty. Mr. [William F.] Lee thinks the first step should be certain disciplinary sanctions, and that is his opinion. But such power unambiguously rests with this faculty. Otherwise, we might as well never meet in this or the Faculty Room again and simply do whatever the dean, the president, and the Senior Fellow of the Corporation say should be done.

Mr. Lee says, “I think rather than getting into a struggle over who has the right to do what…we have a shared responsibility to solve these issues.” Yes, we have that responsibility. So, why worry who or what body or person has the right to act or to set any policy? In a weird mirror image of what sometimes—and perhaps even now—occurs in our national polity, why indeed worry? Why not let the executive do what it wishes? Who cares about precedents, process, statutes, or the constitutional fabric? Why not strip flag burners of citizenship and students of the possibility of a fellowship? Why bother with written statutes and honored principles? Why deliberate? Why vote? Why not postpone indefinitely?

Why ask what is legitimate and what is not? If Harvard and its administration can pick and choose which constitutional rights to honor and which to sanction, and which of its own Statutes to follow and which to ignore, overriding the inherent power of one of its own faculties, all in the name of institutional values, then why shouldn’t the national president and his administration pick and choose which constitutional rights to honor and which statutes to ignore, overriding its own legislature and appointing certain people to the courts, all in the name of national values?

Please, let the proposed sanctions be withdrawn or their implementation suspended. Let Professor Lewis then withdraw his motion and let us with the power of a faculty, with the power explicitly and solely invested in us, devise means to reduce sexual assault and improve the social life of our students, which desperately needs improvement. If the sanctions are not withdrawn, I urge you to vote for Professor Lewis’s motion, for it will be the only way to assert the rightful power and prerogative of this faculty.

Supporting the Sanctions: “Of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate.”

Bass professor of English Louis Menand rose next, to speak against the faculty motion. (Although not noted in the meeting, he serves on the committee working to implement the social-club sanctions, chairing its subcommittee on governance and implementation.) He began by listing several final-club venues and then observing:

These buildings, in the heart of our campus, are different from the buildings that surround them in one fundamental respect. A Harvard woman can go inside them only if she is invited by a Harvard man.

These buildings are owned and occupied by organizations that consist entirely of current and former Harvard students, and they discriminate on the basis of gender. Harvard’s women students, our students, have to walk past these buildings every day. To appreciate how grotesque this is, imagine that it was white people who controlled access to the building and nonwhite people who were excluded from them. If that were the case, I don’t think we would even be having this conversation today. Discrimination on the basis of race is wrong. So is discrimination on the basis of gender. And especially at a co-educational college.

“[S]ocial life at Harvard College today is dominated by private clubs whose membership is segregated by gender,” he noted—an anomaly compared to peers: Yale’s secret societies are co-ed, as are Princeton’s eating clubs, and Amherst recently joined Williams in prohibiting participation in fraternities and similar organizations. “The clubs are organizations dedicated to the furtherance of their members’ careers,” and enable “peer bonding without the nuisance of randomization.” In the context of the College, he maintained, “We should not be looking for ways to accommodate the clubs; the clubs should be accommodating us. The clubs are one hundred percent parasitic on Harvard…The clubs recruit their members from a student body we select, we house, we educate, and we send into life with what is widely regarded as the most valuable ticket punch on the planet. The clubs perpetuate themselves by collecting dues from our students in exchange not just for social amenities, but for access to their networks. They aspire to be Harvards within Harvard.”

As for the sanctions, “Too many concerns have gotten tacked on to what is a very simple issue. There is one reason and only one reason to support the policy, and that is to affirm our opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender.” He dismissed the relevance of the sanctions policy to the problem of sexual assault—a felony for which police intervention is warranted.

As for the motion itself, Menand said, “The motion is pure sophistry. It basically says, We cannot discriminate against people who discriminate because that would be a form of discrimination. Seriously?…Of course we can be intolerant of intolerance, and of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate. That’s what liberal societies do.”

Concerning objections to the sanctions, he said, “No one is being censored for what they say. No one is proposing penalizing students for their views or the views espoused by organizations they join. No action is being taken against the single-gender organizations themselves. We are doing what courts have consistently ruled that, as a private educational institution, we have broad latitude to do, which is to set norms for our students based on collective values, and to tell students what the consequences are for violating those norms. The norm here is nondiscrimination, nothing else. The policy is entirely viewpoint neutral.”

Finally, addressing collateral damage, Menand said, “The policy does affect female final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. But we have allowed a system of social life to grow up that is reproducing the very exclusionary practices we had once hoped to bring an end to. Separate but equal is not the answer to segregation. The answer to segregation is integration. The policy may make some people unhappy, even though it does not affect any student currently at Harvard.  But we have to rip off the band aid. It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

Opposing the Sanctions: “What problem are we solving?”

Smith professor of computer science Margo I. Seltzer ’83, who drew on her experience as an undergraduate (and who spoke without a formal text), began by saying that she was no fan of final clubs, never having set foot in one as a student, or since. As an engineer, she said, she always sought to examine a measure like the social-club sanctions by asking, “What problem are we solving?”

Nodding to Menand’s remarks, she observed that the sanctions had nothing to do with sexual assault. Nor, she said, would sanctions tied to gender-based admission policies seriously change the final clubs’ influence and stature as “bastions of privilege and wealth” merely by admitting alongside the sons of “Exeter, Andover, and Choate” their daughters. Finally, she noted, fears of the College being changed or overwhelmed by becoming a “Greek campus” were overstated; based on her graduate-school experience at an institution that truly met that definition, Harvard was not in that category.

Accordingly, she observed, the sanctions policy did not solve any real problem—and in fact, in her view, it does not even attempt to solve any real problem. “If the clubs are a problem,” she said, “let’s solve the problem.”

The motion Harry Lewis offered, she concluded, was a simple statement of principle, and an appropriate place to begin—by raising questions about a sanctions policy that did not solve any identifiable problem.

Supporting the Sanctions: “What Harvard cannot do directly, it cannot do indirectly.”

Although the faculty did not follow its usual procedure to consider extending the meeting time past its scheduled adjournment at 5:30 p.m., President Faust recognized a final speaker, who indeed went past that nominal deadline. Drawing on his own experience in becoming a member of the equivalent of a final club at a peer institution, Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. made these remarks:

Seeking guidance on vexed matters such as this in the history of Harvard, I turned, as I often have done over the past 25 years, to the writings of the great W.E.B. Du Bois, to see if he had commented on the matter of the nature and function of Final Clubs, and if not, to see if I could ascertain what he might have thought, what advice he might have given us, in response to the motion before us today.

As far as I can determine, Du Bois didn’t write explicitly about the university’s Final Clubs, except to imply that he knew very little about them. “The Harvard of which most white students conceived I knew little,” he wrote in an essay on his Harvard years that he published in 1960, seventy years after he graduated from the College, and just three years before his death. “I had not even heard of Phi Beta Kappa, and of such important social organizations as the Hasty Pudding Club, I knew nothing. I was in Harvard for education and not for high marks, except as marks would insure my staying….” He would not, one would suppose, have been concerned in 1890 about single-sex membership, but he was concerned about the racial policies of undergraduate organizations, which were, indeed, discriminatory, and which were, unfortunately, quite legal to be so, as he discovered when he attempted to join the Glee Club:

“I sought no friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them….I made no attempt to contribute to the college periodicals since the editors were not interested in my major interests. But I did have a good singing voice and loved music, so I entered the competition for the Glee Club. I ought to have known that Harvard could not afford to have a Negro on its Glee Club travelling about the country. Quite naturally I was rejected.”

Since the first black student wouldn’t be elected to a Final Club until 1965, when the Spee elected Frank M. Snowden ’68 of Eliot House, it was probably best that the young Du Bois remained unaware of the Final Clubs and the College’s other, various elite sub-networks, since he would have been rejected for membership from these as well, just as he was the Glee Club.

I entered Yale College in September of 1969, as part of the largest group of black students to attend the university to that time, as a result of a revolution in admission policy reflecting the University’s commitment to affirmative action, an explicit commitment to “diversity with excellence,” including the first female students admitted to the College. And we saw our mission, in part, to integrate every facet of University life, especially its most elite institutions, such as The Yale Political Union, The Yale Daily News, and The Elizabethan Club, and more especially its secret societies, those somewhat mythical entities with such unlikely names as Wolf’s Head, Scroll and Key, Skull and Bones, and Book and Snake: Yale’s equivalent, more or less, of Harvard’s Final Clubs. Diversity with excellence, especially at the most elite levels: That’s how we saw our task, our social responsibility. Indeed, as odd as it may sound today, my black male and female classmates saw challenging the historically all-white status of these organizations as something of a political mission, as an extension of the long quest for the African-American people’s civil rights.

And that is why, late in the spring of my junior year, like many of my friends, I found myself nervously awaiting a rap on the door of my room in Calhoun College on “Tap Night,” the night when the senior members of the secret societies inform 16 juniors that they have been selected—or “tapped”—to succeed them. I was among that small group of students fortunate enough to have been elected to membership. And, in fact, by the end of the evening, I found myself in the unexpected position of having been elected by more than one. Not only had I the good fortune of having been chosen; but I found myself in the surprising position of being able to choose which society to join. But how to choose? Among these were two or three all-male clubs. The others had voted to admit women as early as 1970, just a year after Yale had gone co-ed. After making some discrete inquiries, quite happily, I accepted membership in Book and Snake, as part of a delegation comprised of five women, five African Americans, and a Cuban, of a total delegation of 16. By 1975, Book and Snake’s senior delegation was half male and half female. In 1991, a quarter of a century ago, the last three secret societies at Yale (which have an independent governing status, like the final clubs) finally abandoned their single-sex policies and embraced co-ed status.

I loved my years at Yale. And nothing was more important to my undergraduate experience than my senior year in Book and Snake. Some of my deepest and longest-lasting friendships were formed through Book and Snake.  And much to the annoyance of the Yale administration, some of our most generous donors to the work that we have been doing here at Harvard for the last quarter century—including three members of the National Advisory Board of the Hutchins Center, and the person who funded the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art—are people with whom I am I associated through my senior year in Book and Snake. I cannot imagine a world in which I would have been prevented from even being considered for membership in an organization such as this because of my race, as Du Bois was from the Glee Club, or from any of the all-male final clubs because of gender, as my two daughters would have been, had they decided to matriculate at Harvard College some 20 years ago. Was Du Bois’s profoundly successful career, both at Harvard and thereafter, harmed or haunted  by the decision of the Glee Club, we might ask? Couldn’t he have simply organized and founded an all-black glee club, or a pan-collegiate fraternity, which would be done at Cornell in 1906, something happily separate, but equal? The fact that he chose to write about it, remarkably, some 70 years after graduation and three years before he would die, perhaps gives us a clue.

Accordingly, I rise to oppose my friend, Professor Lewis’s motion. I do so for the following reasons:

First, separate is not equal. Given their long histories, and extensive networks among alumni, the final clubs have unique status and power on campus and in the broader Harvard world, and that status and power cannot be simulated by telling women they are free to create their own final clubs. Part of the allure of these final clubs is their exclusivity (especially in terms of class), and it is simply unjust for Harvard to allow that exclusivity to continue based on gender. Women should have access to these clubs precisely because of the enhanced prestige they add to a Harvard degree. Denying women that access denies them something that male students have long enjoyed.

Second, what Harvard can’t do directly (that is, discriminate by sex), it cannot do indirectly  by allowing this elite realm—of a Harvard within a Harvard—to continue as a male-only world.

Third, no Harvard parent should send their child to an institution where the full range of offerings is unavailable to them. A Harvard education is a tremendously expensive investment for a family to make, and there should be no difference between what a rich or poor, a black or white, a male or female student can make of their time here. Final clubs, just like Yale secret societies, do offer students a leg-up in the world; this simply cannot be disputed. And so, to me, the impact of excluding women purely on gender grounds has a disparate impact on the beneficiary (male students) and the denied (female students) in both their Harvard and their post-Harvard careers. That networking power of the final club cannot be minimized or duplicated. 

Finally, the final clubs were founded years ago on the basis of exclusion. Lines were drawn. Since the height of the civil-rights movement, they have yielded on expanding the range of ethnicities of the men invited to join their ranks. But not so, with the exception of The Spee and the Sabliere, on gender. The change that the Administration is advocating is, in my opinion, long overdue, in the spirit of creating a truly integrated co-ed institution of higher learning, a journey upon which this great university has been embarked, by fits and starts, since 1969. Let that journey continue, and let us do our part to continue to advance the broader society toward true respect for women.


Following Gates's remarks, the docket committee said that since more members of the faculty wished to speak, it was not appropriate to continue the meeting still later, and so it was appropriate to adjourn until the next meeting (February 7); the debate, which had been somewhat extended by the motion for indefinite postponement, ended at 5:37 p.m.

Come late winter, the faculty will convene to probe further—and perhaps to vote on indefinite postponement, or on the motion itself; the implementation committee will presumably be closer to detailing the facts on the ground—the mechanics of the sanctions policy the College has scheduled to be in place by next August; and/or some other solution to the seeming deadlock over contending principles and policies will be brokered.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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