Harvard said Monday that it will no longer enforce a ban on single-gender social clubs, after concluding that the prohibition would likely not withstand a legal challenge from a group of fraternities and sororities who had asked a federal judge just hours earlier to halt the policy.
The policy bars Harvard students who are members of unrecognized single-sex social organizations from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations and athletic teams. It also bars members of the groups from receiving college administered fellowships.
“Harvard is fairer and better when a student’s gender does not stand as a barrier to social opportunities while in college or inhibit students’ access to alumni networks that can help enable opportunities later in life,” Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow said in a message to the Harvard community.
Harvard adopted the ban in 2016 in an effort to shut down the university’s eight, highly secretive, all-male final clubs. But the university’s decision was quickly attacked by women’s organizations that were also affected.
Last fall, a federal District Court judge in Boston ruled that a lawsuit filed by national sororities and fraternities challenging the policy could continue, citing an Appellate Court decision that was then affirmed by the US Supreme Court two weeks ago in a landmark ruling that found gay and transgender Americans are protected by a federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sex.
Based on that finding, it’s likely that Harvard would lose in court and “be legally barred from further enforcing the policy,” Bacow said.
“The policy was adopted to advance the essential and unfinished work of making Harvard a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all our students — of creating a community in which students are not denied the opportunity to participate in aspects of undergraduate life simply because of their gender,” his message added.
The leaders of two national organizations supporting the lawsuit said in a joint statement Monday that they were “gratified to see that Harvard will no longer seek to enforce such an unlawful policy.”
Dani Weatherford, chief executive of the National Panhellenic Conference, and Judson Horras, chief executive of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said the episode “should serve as a lesson to Harvard and other universities”
“Students are free to associate with other students without regard to their gender, and targeting single-sex student organizations is illegal and wrong,” their statement said.
In that case, the high court ruled that federal workplace protections against discrimination on the basis of sex include discrimination that is motivated by the sexual orientation or gender identity of workers.
The plaintiffs suing Harvard include Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, international sororities; Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, international fraternities; and Sigma Alpha Epsilon — Massachusetts Gamma, the local chapter.
Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said in a separate message supporting Bacow that students should consider the organizations they participate in, and ask themselves who has access to those groups. “While Harvard is withdrawing the policy, I still strongly believe that gender discrimination undermines our community’s values,” Khurana said.
Harvard’s policy has led to the near death of all-female clubs, many of which have become co-ed and disassociated with their national umbrella organizations in an effort to comply. Unlike the men’s clubs, the oldest of which were founded in 1791, the female clubs are much newer and do not own Harvard Square mansions.
Female members have argued the clubs serve as spaces for women to find camaraderie at what can still seem like a male-dominated institution.
“Our focus has always been on the freedom of association rights of students and on the particularly acute harm that this policy has done to women’s-only organizations on Harvard’s campus,” Weatherford and Horras said.
“Today’s announcement from the university is nothing short of an admission that their policy was misguided and openly discriminatory based on sex,” their statement added.