New Recommendations for Ending Gender Discrimination in Harvard College

An implementation committee suggests consistent and expanded application of a policy regarding single-gender social organizations.

Doug Melton and Kay Kaufman ShelemayPhotographs from left: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs & Communications and courtesy of Kay Kaufman Shelemay.

Harvard College today released a sprawling report recommending expansion and consistent application of a policy that, starting with the freshman class entering in the fall of 2017, would bar new members of male and female final clubs, fraternities, and sororities (and other unrecognized single-gender social organizations, or USGSOs) that discriminate on the basis of gender, from certain privileges available to the rest of the student body. These privileges range from leadership positions in undergraduate organizations such as athletic teams to independent scholarships and awards such as the Rhodes (which requires Harvard’s endorsement), to the traveling fellowships awarded by Harvard itself. Implementation of the policy has proven highly controversial, and was the subject of heated debate at Faculty of Arts and Sciences meetings in November and December

Updated March 7 with an expanded analysis of the report’s appendices.

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana said in an interview that the recommendations were created with an “aim of [fostering] non-discriminatory undergraduate organizations” in order to “create an environment of equal opportunity.”

The report released today, drawn up by an implementation committee co-chaired by Xander University Professor Douglas Melton and Watts professor of music and professor of African and African American Studies Kay Shelemay, recommended that leadership positions in all existing recognized organizations, including The Harvard Crimson student newspaper and the Undergraduate Council (U.C., the elected student government), also be barred to students who choose to join unrecognized undergraduate social organizations.  Khurana, while accepting most of the suggestions in the report, has taken this particular recommendation under advisement while a second committee, to be appointed by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Michael D. Smith, studies the policy itself in order to prepare a report to be delivered to the FAS. Faculty opponents had earlier faulted the policy on the grounds that it interfered with student rights, specifically to freedom of association. The recommendation to include student government representatives and members of the student press among those leadership positions barred to members of USGSOs may heighten the concerns of these opponents. When the implementation-committee recommendations leaked to the Crimson late last month, leaders of both the U.C. and the newspaper objected to the proposal.

In a letter to Harvard College students, Khurana clarified his desire for further deliberation on this aspect of the recommendations: 

The committee made one recommendation that warrants further deliberation. They suggested that the Undergraduate Council (UC) and the Harvard Crimson be subject to the new policy, which would mean that members of USGSOs could not be considered for leadership roles in either organization. The committee’s rationale here is clear. As they note in their report, these organizations do benefit from the Harvard name and other privileges of student organizations, and including them in the policy would underscore our commitment to a truly inclusive community and powerfully advance the policy’s goals. However, after careful reflection and consultation with colleagues, I’ve heard reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. The Crimson and the UC are different from our other student organizations in fundamental ways. They are the primary forums through which students can hold the College accountable and, in the case of the UC, through which students can advocate for change. These important functions have long been recognized by the Faculty as deserving special consideration, as evidenced by the unique privileges extended to them. These include the ability to attend Faculty Meetings, to access Harvard’s spaces and students, and to meet regularly with College and University administrators. I plan to ask the USGSO committee that Dean Smith will appoint to consider this recommendation and further advise me on its resolution.

The report characterized the USGSO policy as challenging “Harvard College to become a better version of itself.” To that end, the committee studied the strategies used by peer institutions that have dealt with similar issues, including Princeton, Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams (an appendix summarizing these strategies was withheld from the public release of the report; Williams famously abolished fraternities in 1962).

In addition, the committee recommended that Harvard expand its policy of non-discrimination beyond gender and race to socioeconomic status, and that unrecognized social organizations be offered the opportunity to a three-year transition to recognized status if they can provide details of improvement in the following areas:

  • plans to achieve diversity, particularly gender inclusion across a full spectrum of gender identities, in membership and governance of the organization; 

  • processes for open new-member selection processes; 

  • removal of financial barriers to membership and participation; 
  • detailed standards of behavior for all who participate in the organization’s activities. 

The committee also recommended that single-gender women’s groups be given more time to transition to gender-neutral policies than men’s groups. “Given the late entry of women into Harvard College and the fact that they have not had access to the same financial support or facilities for social life,” write the report’s authors, “we suggest introducing a longer, and substantially-supported five-year ‘bridge period’ for the existing traditionally female clubs and sororities beginning when the new policy goes into effect for freshmen in fall 2017.”

The report also criticized the language used by others, including faculty and the press, to describe the policy. Specifically, it objected to the characterization of the policy as “sanctions,” given that freshmen will arrive this fall knowing the College’s expectations. The committee argued that the appropriate way to think about the policy is as a suspension of “privileges.”

The report then devoted several pages to outlining a proposed enforcement mechanism—a signed code acknowledging awareness of Harvard’s non-discrimination policy together with a pledge affirming “compliance with that policy” for any student who takes a leadership position in student organization, applies for a sponsored grant or fellowship, or becomes a varsity athletic team captain. (In a blog post, McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, who has been sharply critical of the policy, published a “modest proposal” authored by professor of computer science Margo Seltzer, satirizing the plan to require students to take a pledge.)

Violations of the policy, which prohibit such students from membership in a USGSO for a full year before and a year after taking advantage of one of these “privileges,” would be considered a violation of the honor code and subject to the same disciplinary procedures and punishments that now govern academic cheating, including referral to a group of faculty, students, and administrators known as the Honor Council.

Noting that communication with students and faculty was poor when the policy was created, the report specifies a number of steps Harvard College should take as part of its outreach to new students and families, and recommends coaching of proctors, tutors, and student leaders, as well as communication with alumni.

The committee also made a number of recommendations that went beyond its official charge. Detailed in an appendix accompanying the report, these propose new strategies to improve undergraduate social life. First among them is a program of “inter-house dining societies,” that would convene around topics of mutual interest, meeting weekly, alternating between the dining halls of two different Houses. “Societies might set special themes for some of their meals, purchase special desserts, invite special guests, eat in elegant attire, read Chaucer out loud, or anything else they enjoy,” according to the report. (The Harvard Crimson took satirical note on its daily blog, wondering if the suggestions could be real.)

The committee further suggested creation of a multicultural gathering space, or “agora,” either in the Smith Center (now under renovation) or in part of Phillips Brooks House; reworking of the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub in the basement of Memorial Hall to make it more welcoming to undergraduates, including freshmen, by de-emphasizing alcohol; use of Loeb House for occasional undergraduate parties or events, and the roof of Hilles as a regular party and event space; and the conversion of administrative offices housed in wood-framed buildings in Harvard Square into student accessible space.

Finally, the report recommended expanding the House intramural sports program to include other kinds of competition such as spelling bees, and debating, trivia, or improvisational theater competitions.

How these recommendations will interact with the work of the faculty committee due to report to Dean Smith later this spring remains to be seen.


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