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Final Clubs: The Lingering Aftermath


University Hall

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

University Hall

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

As previously reported, the Harvard Corporation has adopted a policy that prohibits undergraduate members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs: final clubs, fraternities, and sororities) from holding leadership positions in recognized organizations or athletic teams, or receiving the College’s required endorsement for fellowships such as Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. In the wake of the process that resulted in that decision, extending from May 2016 through this fall semester, several observations seem in order, ranging from lingering issues about governance and enforcement to the efficacy of the policy itself.

“Faculty engagement.” The second sentence in the statement by President Drew Faust and Corporation senior fellow William F. Lee conveying that body’s decision, read by Faust to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on December 5, notes, “We appreciate the intense involvement of the Faculty on an issue….”

It is perhaps worth remembering that the faculty was initially kept from engaging on the issue, because the sanctions policy was outlined by the May 6, 2016, letter from Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana to Faust, who in turn accepted his recommendations. The issue came before the full faculty for discussion only because opponents of the policy made a motion to overturn it, forcing it onto the formal FAS-meeting agenda—where it became the subject of protracted discussions, a Faculty Council motion to postpone consideration, and subsequent revision and further parliamentary maneuvering after the College considered further sanction measures (including an outright ban on membership in USGSOs).

Looking to the future, the Faust and Lee statement outlined a process for assessing the policy, and procedures for faculty members to weigh in, while carefully navigating around any further invitation to deeper engagement or legislation:

The Corporation has explicitly voted that the policy be reviewed after five years and the resulting report presented to and discussed by the Faculty. The President has conferred with the Deans of the Faculty and the College, who will ask the standing Committee on Student Life to ensure that the College has an ongoing understanding about how the undergraduate experience is evolving in light of the policy. The College expects to ask the Committee, as part of its charge, to make periodic, interim reports to the Faculty and the Deans. We also encourage members of the Faculty to remain engaged on issues affecting the quality of undergraduate life and to share thoughts and observations with the Committee and the Deans.

Faculty members who argued that student-life policy was a matter for FAS enactment—meaning that the transfer of authority to the College dean’s office, the Harvard administration, or the Corporation was at odds with the norms of University governance—are unlikely to be comforted by this fait accompli.

The student handbook. The policy still might come before the faculty for a vote, if it is deemed that its substance and enforcement procedures belong in the student handbook. Not every policy is represented in the handbook, and the Faust-Lee statement carefully describes the USGSO sanctions as a matter of student choice (as to whether to belong to an unrecognized group), not as a disciplinary matter (it reads, “The policy does not discipline or punish the students…”).

In response to a query about this matter, Khurana provided this statement: “Now that we have an approved USGSO policy in place, we will be turning our attention back to its implementation, and should proposed changes to the handbook emerge from that process, we will bring forward those changes to the faculty for their approval as part of our regular process.” FAS dean Michael D. Smith (who has remained largely silent during the USGSO debate, deferring to Khurana and Faust), has not responded to a similar query about whether FAS legislation on the handbook language will be required; The Harvard Crimson reported after the December 5 meeting that “Smith said the College has not decided if the recently-affirmed undergraduate social life policy will appear in the student handbook, which is approved each May by the Faculty.”

Enforcement. The policy is not self-enforcing, nor necessarily even easy to enforce. The College does not have access to USGSOs’ private membership rosters; indeed, during the debates over the policy, varying estimates of how many undergraduates belong to final clubs, sororities, and fraternities were advanced. The enforcement mechanism proposed in February 2017 and then accepted by Khurana would require students to make an oath-like affirmation that they are complying with the College’s nondiscrimination policy; suspected violations would be heard by the Honor Council, which was established to address cases of academic misconduct—an assignment of responsibility made apparently without consulting the council, some of whose members reported their opposition to assuming such oversight.

Khurana’s statement, above, indicates that the enforcement mechanism may be under further consideration. And according to the Crimson account of its conversation with Smith, he said, “I’m sure we’ll find ways to make sure that the students understand the policy. Certain things are written in the handbook, other things are available to you as policy on one of our websites, available to you on other venues.” Further, “I think that all of us have to be working together for this policy to work. The partnership with the students and the Faculty and the administration is going to be critical to the success of getting to the kind of community that we want on campus.” Smith further expressed the hope that “the community works together on trying to understand how to move forward with the policy that we now know that we’re going to be using for the next five years.”

What exactly the community needs to work on together remains to be further defined, at least in terms of an enforcement mechanism for the new policy.

Contemporary students and the efficacy of the sanctions policy. Having gone through the trauma of creating and promulgating the USGSO policy, its proponents have to hope that it will be effective. By one definition, effectiveness means transforming, or doing in, the USGSOs, particularly the male final clubs. The Faust-Lee statement addresses “the final clubs in particular,” and looks toward organizational evolution: “The USGSOs, in turn, have the choice to become gender-neutral and thus permit their members full access to all institutional privileges.” Indeed, “We proceed on the hope that the existing policy will be a powerful inducement to change” both in membership policies and in adopting “practices to limit their impact. Open selection processes and no public parties would be positive steps in that direction, and we urge the organizations to adopt these practices.” (In a sense, the USGSOs now find themselves in something like the status of inmates on death row: because the Corporation will revisit the policy in five years to determine whether its desired changes have taken effect, the specter of a ban on student membership—execution—hangs over the members and their graduate boards.)

The statement recognizes that “its most direct focus is on eliminating the allocation of social opportunities on the basis of gender.” But it also points to investments intended to change the context within which undergraduates conduct their social lives, citing “House renewal and the creation of new student space in the renovated Smith Campus Center, scheduled to open in the fall. In part supported by presidential resources, the College has also dramatically expanded its social programming—including by increasing the funds available to students, through their House Committees, the Undergraduate Council, and the Intramural Council, to host student-run events. The President has committed additional resources to help support the College’s ongoing efforts in this area for the current academic year.” The Harvard Gazette report on the statement and policy takes the same tack, noting:

For the past two years, Faust, Khurana, and officials across the University have been working to help further support the student experience on campus with funding from the President’s Office and the Dean’s Discretionary Fund. Projects include the Collaboration and Innovation Grant, which provides up to $3,000 to support student-run events that foster engaging community among students and campus student organizations. Increased funding has supported the Intramural Council for its activities, the House Committees to help them host campus-wide events in the Houses, and the Undergraduate Council to support events and collaborations with student organizations. Other supported events and programming include student-initiated activities to enhance social life in the Houses, such as dances, jam sessions, coffee houses, and study sessions. In addition, further funds are available for the Houses for “integrated and transformative” College experiences. One recent popular event was Quadfest, a party on Harvard’s quad with food trucks, a barbecue dinner provided by Harvard University Dining Services, and live music.

Will such investments in real estate (social spaces) and funding (for social activities) offset many contemporary students’ apparent desire to join final clubs, sororities, and fraternities?

As a casual observation, today’s students differ significantly from the people who attended selective colleges and universities a few decades ago (among whom one might number many senior professors, administrators, and members of the University’s governing boards). They seem eager to wear clothes with their school logo; to confer often with their parents about matters ranging from their application essays to course selection and homework; and, yes, to join fraternities and sororities: activities that the elite student cohort of a couple of generations earlier would have regarded with horror.

In common with their predecessors, they share the timeless interest in personal relationships, romance, and, yes, sex. But they approach these fundamental issues (in the context of moving away from their families and on to a campus) having been winnowed through a severe selection process, unimaginable in the 1970s and 1980s, that emphasizes intellectual and academic distinction, but perhaps underweights emotional development and social skills. And access to, and untutored use of, alcohol seems to play a significant role in the release of tension and lubrication of social interactions for many of them, in ways that are not necessarily identical to the experiences of people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.

How widely are these characteristics understood? Will spiffed-up social spaces in the renewed Houses, or Smith Campus Center, address students’ wider wants? What is it about being located in perhaps the safest, most attractive urban setting of any American research university that leaves Harvard College students socially uncertain, unsatisfied, and in need of official party rules and socializing grants?

Very little of the discussion about USGSOs in the FAS meeting reached any of these issues—a concern raised pointedly in November by Maier professor of political economy Benjamin Friedman. He said then:

 [T]he 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.

 • Was all this necessary? Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but it is worth asking whether the drafting and promulgation of the USGSO policy needed to be pursued as they were, consuming most of several faculty meetings across two academic years, and resulting in multiple, convoluted committees, reports, recommendations, and motions—the collective result of which is to address issues of undergraduate life and the campus community only in part, at best.

At a guess, after some discussion, those FAS members who bother to attend faculty meetings would have voted for some sanctions, procedures, or other measures to discourage student membership in gender-exclusive social clubs. Most faculty members don’t seem like the sort of people who were big joiners of such clubs when they were undergraduates; most are supportive of diversity and inclusion; and probably most view final clubs, in particular, as adverse for undergraduates’ social life and the quality of the campus community. So, even if they had qualms about restricting students’ freedom of association in legal organizations, it is entirely possible that a majority of voting faculty members could have been mustered to support a proposal to limit USGSO members’ ability to lead other student organizations or athletic teams.

If the decision not to bring the issue before the faculty for a vote may be questioned retrospectively, it was accompanied by one clearly unforced error: the decision also to impose an academic sanction—namely, that joining a USGSO (a choice about social life) would preclude the required College endorsement on applications for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. As Porter University Professor Helen Vendler argued at the November meeting,

I do not accept that the Dean should be able to refuse endorsement to a fellowship application for which I serve as an academic reference without notifying me that my student’s application is being refused not for the usual reasons denying endorsement in the past but rather for the new prohibition on club membership. That my recommendation would not be forwarded to overseas scholarship committees on this ground deprives me of the right to have my recommendation treated with intellectual respect, and destroys my ability to foster the intellectual future of a brilliant student.

In other words, this sanction is an administrative intrusion on the academic prerogatives that inhere in being a professor working with a student in a university context. This proposal was deeply offensive to some faculty members—a concern that may resonate in the future.

Because the faculty have not received data on how many students might be affected (even the question of how the College would know which Rhodes or Marshall candidates are members of USGSOs is opaque), the sanction itself may have no real effect; advancing it, and conflating social and academic concerns, seems, retrospectively, like an own-goal.

Returning to the vexed matter of enforcement, the sanctions implementation committee recommended that fellowship candidates affirming that they do not belong to a USGSO (and therefore can qualify for the College endorsement) “must not have been a member of an unrecognized single-gender social organization for at least one year prior to application, and must remain unaffiliated with such organizations for at least one year after their tenure as holder of the fellowship or award”—two or three years after graduation, in the case of some fellowships in England. The intent is to get around clubs’ possible resort to the artifice of welcoming undergraduates as affiliates or some other status, and then conferring full membership after Commencement—but the reach, and implementation, of such a measure seem both extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult to effect.

What the world beyond Harvard thinks. Finally, in the current political environment, elite higher-education institutions have plenty to worry about. The tax legislation pending before Congress may impose a levy on endowments (and subject graduate students to punishing cash tax liabilities on imputed income they never actually receive, given that their tuition is typically waived). Such is the populist tenor of the times.

Also current is the sense that campus communities are out of synch with traditional values; that they have become venues that are insufficiently tolerant of diverse opinions (although Harvard has done an excellent job thus far of avoiding the disruptions that have, on some other campuses, made it impossible for speakers to speak); and that selective institutions are at the same time excessively devoted to admitting legacies, the privileged, and scions of the urban elite.

From a political perspective, no matter the centrality of the issues at stake to Harvard College’s values, this was probably not the best time for FAS’s business to focus so heavily on regulating membership in social clubs—grist for some politicians who think the society is on the verge of practicing reverse discrimination. And so, predictably, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on December 11, the reauthorization of the higher-education act now working its way through the House of Representatives has suddenly swerved toward campus regulation of single-gender social organizations. “The new proposal,” the Chronicle reported, “would bar institutions that have policies allowing single-sex social organizations for students from requiring those groups to ‘admit as a member an individual who does not meet the organization’s criteria for single-sex status.”

Harvard’s USGSOs are unrecognized, so, as a technical matter, such legislation would not reach the policy promulgated in the Faust-Lee statement. But this is, certainly, a “Harvard” amendment.

In pursuing a protracted process that might instead have been taken to the faculty, voted upon, and resolved sooner, Harvard has now made itself known, for political purposes, for that. Much better that it should be recognized for the strength of its financial-aid program, its graduates’ contributions to society, or the role its research plays in alleviating human suffering and bettering the quality of life in the United States and around the world. That seems a rather large opportunity cost at a delicate time, and one that unfortunately extends far beyond the immediate stake at hand in regulating USGSOs.

By acting now, the Corporation has taken USGSOs off the agenda, finally, before the search for Faust’s successor results in the appointment of a new Harvard president. But she or he faces a complicating, and in many respects unwelcoming, external environment. It would be well to assure that the way the University conducts its important business internally doesn’t make the external challenges still more daunting in the years ahead.   

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Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

The Undergraduate writes about building a more inclusive community at Harvard