CAMBRIDGE — Upstairs in the great hall of the Fly Club, a mounted buffalo wears a Santa hat. The gleaming eyes of the taxidermied beast stare out into a cavernous room where undergraduate men line the windows with Christmas lights for a party. The hall smells of stale beer.
For more than 100 years, only the privileged few have stepped inside the 19th-century mansion, built for this exclusive all-male social club on Holyoke Place in Harvard Square. But this year, a Harvard College crackdown on all eight male final clubs, which are not formally part of the university, has pulled them from the shadows.
The college’s attempt to force the historic clubs to accept women has sparked a backlash, pitting administrators against not only the clubs’ powerful alumni but also a growing number of professors. Many students who would ordinarily criticize the clubs — among them women who belong to all-female clubs — are rising improbably to their defense.
It is shaping up as a very strange moment in the life of a great university. The controversy has raised hard questions about how much power colleges should exert over students’ off-campus lives and whether administrators, in trying to promote inclusivity, have gone too far.
“You just don’t punish people for joining a club. That’s un-American,” said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor who has led the charge against the administration’s new sanctions on the clubs. The rule would restrict on-campus privileges — like sports team captaincies and scholarship recommendations — for members of the clubs that don’t comply, starting in fall 2017.
“We have social problems at Harvard, but you don’t solve social problems this way, by taking away people’s right of free association — it’s wrong on principle, and it also won’t work,” Lewis added.
The dispute could reach a new level Tuesday, when faculty are scheduled to vote on a motion that would oppose the administration, saying Harvard should not discriminate against students based on organizations they join.
Leading up to the faculty vote, an administrator has e-mailed a 158-page packet of anonymous survey results to professors, in which students disparage the clubs, saying things like “finals clubs are a cancer to the college.”
The elite clubs’ exclusion of women has long been contentious. The clubs and the college severed ties in 1984, when the clubs refused to admit women. As a result, the university cut off steam heat and university phone service to their houses.
The controversy flared again last year when the newly installed dean of the college, Rakesh Khurana, pointed to the results of a survey that he said show that the clubs foster an environment that leads to sexual assaults. The clubs are known for raucous parties with exclusive guest lists and rampant under-age drinking, and for their extravagant recruitment seasons with formal balls and overnight trips.
Khurana believes the clubs undercut Harvard’s commitment to an inclusive social environment, free from discrimination and intolerant of sexual assault.
“We can’t have an institution that basically operates in a way that institutionalizes discrimination,” Khurana said in a phone interview Friday.
He knew the policy would anger some but said he believes it will prove right in the long run, calling it “a catalytic spark of change that has been long overdue.”
University president Drew Faust, in response to mounting faculty pushback, told The Harvard Crimson she would consider other suggestions for how to curb the influence of single-sex organizations on campus.
It is unclear how the university will respond if the faculty votes against the policy Tuesday. Some professors are furious not so much about the policy itself but because they feel the administration rushed to impose it without their input.
Many students say the reason the final clubs dominate Harvard’s social scene is because the on-campus scene is so constricted. Harvard’s strict dormitory rules force students to go off campus, many say.
From 1973 to 1979 the drinking age in Massachusetts was 18, and older final club members recall the days when on-campus residential houses held parties where students, residential assistants, and professors would imbibe together, ideally in moderation. That social outlet is gone.
Since 1984, when the final clubs split with the college, other off-campus organizations, including the female final clubs and Greek organizations, have stepped up to absorb students’ desire for social outlets.
Because Harvard cannot formally sanction the off-campus clubs, it is now trying a different approach. The policy would bar final club members — and members of any unrecognized single-gender social organization — from leading campus organizations and sports teams and prohibit them from receiving recommendations from the dean for a prestigious Rhodes or Marshall scholarship.
The threat of sanctions from Harvard has divided many clubs internally. One club, the Spee, relented and elected to admit women. The undergraduate members of the Fox Club elected nine women provisionally, but then club alumni voted against the change. The provisionally admitted women’s ultimate status remains unclear.
Altogether, each club has about 50 to 70 undergraduate members at any one time. Harvard has 6,700 undergraduates.
The Porcellian, Harvard’s oldest final club, founded in 1791, whose members have included President Theodore Roosevelt, hired its own consultants to challenge the results of a survey the university says show that sexual assault is prevalent in the clubs. The Fly hired an attorney, Harvey Silverglate, who said he is prepared to file a legal challenge to the policy on behalf of the club.
The controversy has made unusual allies of civil liberties advocates like Silverglate and the national network of elite club alumni, who have traveled back to Cambridge more often this year to meet with the dean and their clubs. At a debate at the law school last week, the majority of audience members voted that the policy threatens First Amendment values like freedom of association.
“This is now way beyond the final clubs. It’s really [about] how much are you going to control the students’ lives,” said Rick Porteus, class of 1978 and alumni president of the Fly, who attended the debate. Membership in the clubs is for life, and governance is shared between current students and alumni.
At the debate, others spoke in favor of the policy, arguing that reducing the risk of sexual assault is paramount. Students agree to abide by a school’s values when they attend, said professor David Howell, a professor of Japanese history.
“No one has to attend Harvard College. If one does not agree with the college’s commitment to inclusion, one need not come here,” Howell said.
Two students, Eduardo Gonzalez and Alex Popovski, ran unsuccessfully for undergraduate president and vice president this year on a platform supportive of the policy. The clubs, they say, have had plenty of years since they broke with the college to become more inclusive and they haven’t.
“This isn’t a brand-new decision about what Harvard’s values are,” Gonzalez said.
But a growing number of students have questioned the final club sanctions, even if many believe the clubs exert undue influence on the Harvard social scene. Sixty percent of undergraduates who voted in the school’s November election said they oppose the university’s sanctions on the clubs, the Crimson reported.
Women’s groups in particular, while decrying sexual assault, have voiced opposition to the policy, which would also force five female-only off-campus clubs to admit men if they want to avoid sanctions. Harvard’s nine fraternities and sororities would also be affected.
The policy has also garnered pushback from the Varsity Club, the alumni group for Harvard athletes, as well as the national branches of several Greek organizations.
“There’s a lot of people who share a distaste of the final clubs not just because of sexism but also because of the elitism, yet this policy punishes the guilty and the innocent indiscriminately,” said Ali Partovi, a 1994 graduate who was a member of the local chapter of Sigma Chi. He emphasized he was speaking personally and not for the fraternity.
Partovi, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, said that as a nerdy, immigrant student on financial aid, he found Harvard lonely and exclusionary. In Sigma Chi, he said, he found a “ragtag group of misfits” and comforting camaraderie more welcoming than the final clubs.
Some professors wonder whether the policy could send the college down a slippery slope where administrators could, in the future, add to the list of frowned-upon off-campus organizations.
“To try and put [final club members] on a black list . . . is disturbing,” said professor Richard Losick, a signatory of the motion. “I’d liken it to a McCarthy-like culture.”
As the controversy swirls, clubs like the Fly seem like relics of another time — and proud of it.
In the 1800s, students would join a succession of social clubs during their four years at Harvard, culminating with one of the final clubs.
On a recent visit, the walls of the rooms surrounding the Fly Club’s grand hall were jammed with hand-drawn memorabilia from past gatherings and photos of members, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William Weld, Deval Patrick, and Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The dimly lit library smells of well-worn leather chairs and firewood smoke. In a butler’s pantry downstairs, off the formal dining room, sits a keg.
In the kitchen, a chef cleans up from a lunch of tomato soup, roast chicken, and chocolate chip cookies. Dining room chairs were gifts from the classes of 1911, 1912, and 1913.
The Fly Club, Porteus said, is a place of camaraderie and nurturing. Members pay dues, and those who can’t afford the charge,defer payments until after graduation. Many clubs have become more diverse as Harvard itself has admitted more minorities. Members return year after year, and the networks they form strengthen over the decades.
“[In college] you want to be with other people who not only expand your experience but also understand your experience,” he said.