The Fractured Faculty

The long final-clubs debate yields an uncertain path forward—and reveals fault lines in governance.

University HallPhotograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Following the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on November 7—and a vote that rejected a motion opposing the College’s regulation of final clubs, fraternities, and sororities—the Harvard Crimson headlined “Sanctions Vote a Sigh of Relief for Administrators” and “In Victory for Administrators, Anti-Sanctions Faculty Motion Fails.”

In a very real sense, those headlines ring true. A faculty endorsement of the motion would in effect have thrown out the effort, begun in May 2016 and led by Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, to impose sanctions on students who join unrecognized single gender social organizations (USGSOs)—as a means of pressuring those organizations to change their membership practices and cultures, or to prohibit membership outright—as a way of attempting to close them down.

In other ways, however, many of the hardest substantive and procedural issues surrounding the USGSOs remain unresolved.

And the sharp faculty debate over the sanctions or prohibition reveals other serious issues, pertaining to FAS governance and the culture of contemporary Harvard, that have barely been addressed. Figuring out how to make these challenges a priority, and pursuing the hard work of coming to terms with them, may be as consequential for the faculty’s future as the reform of the Harvard Corporation, unveiled in late 2010, was intended to be for the University as a whole.

The Final Clubs and Related Organizations

What, now, is to be done about the final clubs—the particular object of Khurana’s attention?

The final report by the committee on USGSOs that he co-chaired recommended not one course of action, but three:

  • sanctioning students who join, by denying them the possibility of holding a leadership position in a recognized student organization or club or sports team, and withholding the College’s required endorsement for fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall;
  • prohibiting membership in such organizations outright; or
  • some other strategy, perhaps focused on moral suasion meant to cast the gender-exclusive clubs and organizations in broad disfavor.

The committee report suggested that this decision rests in President Drew Faust’s hands. Faculty opponents of the sanctions or of prohibition, who emphasized students’ right of legal free association, also strongly insist that the decision belongs to the faculty.

So the what and the who remain somewhat up in the air.

Also unresolved is how to enforce any regulatory or sanctions measure. In their November 7 presentations, Khurana and dean of freshmen Thomas Dingman both suggested that attempting to make USGSOs into recognized organizations (which would have to be nondiscriminatory and open in their membership processes, and locally governed) would be costly in terms of personnel and resources.

But subjecting student members, or would-be members, of unreformed USGSOs to sanction or removal from the College would seem subject to some of the same challenges. Membership is not a public matter, so students will presumably have to affirm that they are not members, and then be subject to some investigatory process to determine whether they are telling the truth. It is perhaps worth noting that since the academic misconduct that shook the College in the 2012-2013 academic year, an honor code and an enforcing board have been put in place—but the College experienced another large-scale academic-misconduct investigation (and round of punishments) last year, in another large-enrollment course.

Speculation has already begun about how USGSOs could attempt to subvert the regulations. A group of undergraduate women and recent graduates who support sororities and therefore oppose the proposed College policies have pointed out that final clubs might, for instance, become “alumni” organizations in which undergraduate recruits would be treated as affiliates until they graduate. It may also be possible to envision changing membership policies on paper to become gender-neutral, or broadly inclusive, but not altering the membership in practice.

Finally, one reason advanced for challenging the clubs is that they perpetuate exclusive socioeconomic inequalities. As Dean Dingman vividly portrayed the problem, “Students accepting our offer of admission should, I believe, feel that they are eligible to participate in all of Harvard. Yet when they see students in their black ties and black dresses—sometimes headed to limousines—pass their peers coming back with mops and buckets from doing Dorm Crew they have to wonder if Harvard is truly open. That is unfortunate.” Doing in the final clubs as a locus for such activity will certainly have an effect, but the socioeconomic differences among current College students are profound—and will not disappear even if the clubs morph into something different.

Governance and Faculty Engagement

In his remarks at the faculty meeting, Khurana concluded by asking that colleagues reject the motion limiting his scope of action (as they did), and turn to developing policies in the ways FAS ordinarily does, through collegial discussion.

Whether that is feasible depends on how one judges both the extended debate on final clubs, and the operation of the faculty as a body more generally.

Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, who proposed the motion that was defeated (and its predecessor motion, which did not come to a vote), earlier served as Harvard College dean. He has noted that momentous decisions like the move to randomize assignment to the Houses emerged from the work of a faculty committee. It examined problems and needs, aired proposals and differences, and then advanced a policy recommendation for consideration by the full faculty. This process, the essence of shared governance, has substantive benefits. (It also provides political cover for hard decisions.)

In the case of the sanctions proposal for members of final clubs and related organizations, Khurana announced the policy in May 2016. Facing an apparent fait accompli, Lewis, joined by other professors, made a motion to proscribe the sanctions. Subsequently, FAS dean Michael D. Smith appointed a committee to reexamine the sanctions; as it began to do so, an implementation committee advanced ideas for effecting the sanctions (and even suggested extending them to the Crimson and the Undergraduate Council, recommendations Khurana rejected); and then the new committee—co-chaired by Khurana himself—moved beyond the sanctions to suggest the outright prohibition of membership in a USGSO. That prompted Lewis and colleagues to introduce their revised opposition motion, the measure that has now been voted down. After these events, it is unclear how the 40 percent of the voting FAS members who supported the Lewis motion (among whom there are strongly held views about the substance of the USGSO policy and faculty governance) are going to be brought into the conversation that lies—or ought to lie—ahead.

Reviewing the extended legislative maneuvering and formal debate on this issue, it seems clear that they did not result either in clarifying matters or in advancing substantive solutions. Many, and perhaps even most, of the faculty members who voted for the Lewis motion are critical of, and even opposed to, the final clubs; Porter University Professor Helen Vendler made that point in the opening sentence of her remarks on November 7. But the FAS meetings, polarized by the imposition of sanctions effective for the current freshman class, did not elicit any move toward consensus.

Take two specific examples.

The sanction that would withhold the College’s required endorsement for academic fellowships deeply offended Vendler and some of her colleagues. They make their recommendations for such fellowships based on their evaluation of their students’ academic and intellectual development and potential; to have their considered evaluations, as professors, subject to administrative veto for unrelated reasons struck them as an intolerable intrusion on their professional obligations and sphere of responsibility. A faculty committee convened before the sanctions were announced in May 2016 might have raised that concern.

Similarly, in the November 7 debate, two speakers objected that Lewis’s motion was so broad that it would not only prohibit administrative control of the USGSOs, but also eliminate existing procedures and expectations governing the hundreds of recognized clubs and student organizations. Again, that objection might have been usefully aired before a motion advanced to the vote.

In short, the policymaking process on display had shortcomings, and the process of advancing motions and debating them on the floor during FAS meetings did as well. A seasoned, neutral observer of the faculty lamented that given the way things played out, motions and counter-motions (some emanating from the Faculty Council, the faculty’s elected representatives who advise the dean) had become “weaponized”: tools for scoring points, rather than a means to explain, persuade, and forge agreed-upon courses of action.

Perhaps that is why the faculty at large seems disengaged. The debates on the final-club motions were moved from the Faculty Room in University Hall to a Science Center lecture hall to accommodate those attending (the first time this has been necessary since FAS’s vote of no confidence in President Lawrence H. Summers in 2005). On the other hand, the 130-90 ballot against the Lewis motion represented 220 votes: one-quarter of the 882 FAS members eligible to participate.

Another proposal brought before the faculty on November 7 concerns the schedule for FAS meetings beginning in the next academic year, when class schedules change to accommodate academic activity in Allston. The accompanying explanatory material notes that when the schedule for meetings last changed, in 2001, attendance rose from an average of 125 voting members to 143. FAS has in fact reduced its quorum so that it can conduct business, given persistently low attendance. And even that attendance reflects, in part, faculty members who have administrative responsibilities (as department chairs, House faculty deans, and so on) and are therefore expected to show up.

The faculty, in other words, does not appear highly involved in its own governance, as measured by participating in FAS’s formal legislative process. The risk is a self-reinforcing cycle: administrators frustrated about the faculty’s ability to act come to trust it less, and faculty members come to regard their collective deliberations as formulaic or feckless—and so devote their energies to their other responsibilities. The historic model of shared governance within the faculty then becomes attenuated, but without a path toward an alternative that would be effective for Harvard.

Unaddressed Issues

The substantive fallout could be consequential. What has FAS not debated while it has spent so much time sparring over the USGSO controversy?

During the past decade, many faculty members hunkered down in the face of financial crisis, acceding to Dean Smith’s path toward austerity and budget stability. They have not aired or asked for any kind of substantive briefing on the priorities for or progress of FAS’s capital campaign, even as it has raised about $3 billion in gifts and pledges—but not enabled FAS to regain full financial strength. Those would seem elemental concerns.

During this semester, the revised General Education curriculum has been under final development—a matter fundamental to undergraduate learning—but no discussion has been docketed.

Even when considering student life (of which final clubs are only one element), the faculty’s vision may have been too narrow. Speaking on November 7, Maier professor of political economy Benjamin Friedman expressed dismay about how FAS had missed what was, to his mind, the core issue:

Like many colleagues present, I read the file of materials that Dean Smith distributed a year ago in an earlier phase of this discussion. One conclusion stood out clearly: the life of the Houses, those jewels of the Harvard structure, is nowhere near as engaging to our students as it should be, and in consequence it is losing out to life in other venues. What have we done in response? An all-too-familiar feature of American business behavior…is that when a firm’s product is losing out in competition, the firm’s response is not to improve its product but to seek to get the regulators to take its competitor’s product off the market. In effect, that’s what we have been doing here. Think of what we might have accomplished—think of what we still might accomplish—if we redirect the time and talent and energy that this faculty has put into this two-year-long discussion…to thinking about how best to re-invigorate life in Houses, rather than simply looking to shut down the alternative that too many of our students now prefer instead.

Given that FAS has already committed nearly $900 million to physical House renewal (with several hundred million dollars yet to go), that criticism might seem churlish. But it gets at important matters: what contemporary students are like, how they behave and conduct their social lives, and the connection between those traits and the College’s residential culture and aspirations.

At a fraught moment for higher education—particularly for elite, selective institutions like Harvard College—the promulgation of policy for addressing USGSOs, and the ensuing debate, raise questions not only about that issue, but about how faculty members, the FAS as a corpus, and the administration set an agenda, advance proposals, and take action in the institution’s and the community’s best interests.

It is unclear whether anyone wishes to take on that existential issue, nor how they would proceed to do so. Perhaps that ought to become a common concern.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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