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Harvard moves to rein in all-male social clubs

FILE -- Students walk across Harvard Yard on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., Jan. 14, 2016. Malia Obama plans to attend Harvard University beginning in the fall of 2017, the White House announced May 1, waiting until her father leaves office to begin her college career. (Charlie Mahoney/The New York Times)

Charlie Mahoney/The New York Times/file 2016

Harvard University moved decisively Friday to turn up the pressure on exclusive, all-male social clubs, barring members from leading campus organizations and sports teams.

The new policy, which will take effect for the freshman class in 2017, will also prohibit members of the 14 so-called final clubs, as well as nine fraternities and sororities, from receiving recommendations for prestigious scholarships from undergraduate dean Rakesh Khurana.

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The restrictions were announced amid a mounting standoff between the elite clubs and college administrators, who say the organizations foster a culture that leads to sexual assault. The administrators say the clubs are antithetical to Harvard’s commitment to promoting inclusion and diversity.

“[The clubs] encourage a form of self-segregation that undermines the promise offered by Harvard’s diverse student body,” Harvard president Drew Faust wrote in a letter released Friday to Harvard students and faculty.

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Student government leaders and the members of one final club criticized the policy, saying it erodes students’ freedom to do as they choose off campus.

Because the clubs are highly secretive, it was not immediately clear how administrators would identify individual members. A Harvard spokeswoman said implementation would be worked out by an advisory group that will be appointed.

The policy is a culmination of a push over the past year by Khurana and other administrators to persuade the male clubs to accept women. So far, two have.

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Khurana and other administrators have cited statistics from a survey of students last year that they say indicate that after dormitories, final clubs are the most frequent location of sexual assault. Some clubs are known for raucous parties and nude initiation ceremonies.

Harvard is one of 11 Massachusetts colleges under investigation by federal officials for allegedly failing to properly handle sexual assault allegations. In the meantime, it has already reformed some policies, including providing new resources for assault prevention training.

“I am mindful in particular about concerns that unsupervised social spaces can present for sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse,” Faust wrote.

In a separate letter, Khurana did not address sexual assault besides a mention of a Harvard task force report that came out earlier this year that focused heavily on final clubs as enabling assault.

“In this case, the discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances,” Khurana wrote, adding that the university will aid any club that wants to change its rules to accept all genders.

The policy will apply not only to the university’s eight all-male final clubs, but also its six all-female final clubs, five fraternities, and four sororities. Many final clubs maintain off-campus houses in Harvard Square where members have meals and socialize.

While the Fox and Spee final clubs have elected to accept women, others have vigorously resisted, including the Porcellian, which last week issued a study it commissioned rebutting the university’s premise that final clubs are to blame for allowing sexual assault.

Members of the Porcellian Club criticized the decision in a statement sent by Marcia Horowitz of Rubenstein Public Relations in New York.

“We are disappointed with this unfair and punitive decision that attacks Harvard’s own students because they make a choice to freely assemble at unaffiliated, off-campus, private organizations,” the statement said.

But former governor Deval Patrick, a former Spee member who said he cut ties with the club in 1983, praised the new policy.

“Gender-exclusive clubs are a thing of the past, or ought to be. Harvard’s move to end discriminatory practices at final clubs is welcome and timely,” Patrick said in a statement in the Harvard Gazette.

Leaders of the undergraduate student government organization criticized the move, saying it should be more nuanced and should not have been released during exam period. They also took exception to portraying all one-gender organizations in a single light, wrote Shaiba Rather and Daniel Banks, the council president and vice president, respectively.

Primarily, however, the students faulted the policy’s underlying objective and urged those who will implement it to consider its potential effect on student organizations.

“Vetting of elected members of student government based on affiliation in certain groups is detrimental, and fundamentally opposed, to the vivacity of the democratic process,” the statement said.

Cambridge lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who has followed the final club saga, said the clubs could make an argument in court that the university is infringing on students’ legally guaranteed freedom of association.

“What Harvard keeps forgetting is: This is a free country,” said Silverglate, a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in criminal defense and civil liberties.

He called the administration’s interference with students’ lives a “vast overreach.”

“I don’t think that Harvard has the authority, legally or morally and ethically, to be micromanaging the social lives of students, especially off campus,” Silverglate said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.
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