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Harvard dean stands firm against single-sex ‘final clubs’

Rakesh Khurana, dean of the college.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2015/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard created a stir last month when it announced that it might “revise or replace” a controversial plan to sanction students who join all-male social clubs long seen as bastions of wealth and privilege.

To some on campus, it seemed Harvard, under pressure from alumni and faculty, might abandon its push to force so-called final clubs, as well as sororities and other women-only clubs, to accept members of the opposite sex.

But the new committee of students, professors, and administrators that will reexamine the issue now appears unlikely to grant the clubs a reprieve.

In an interview, Rakesh Khurana, dean of the college, made clear that, whatever the committee decides, single-gender social organizations will still have to go co-ed.


“What’s most important to underscore is that our commitment to a non-discriminatory experience is unwavering,” Khurana said.

The dean’s refusal to soften his stance angered critics who said the committee was aimed at giving professors and students a voice on the issue,with no real power.

“It’s a hoax,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge civil-liberties lawyer and opponent of Harvard’s effort to sanction students who join the clubs. “They plan to have the same essential bottom line with a little changes around the edges. But this time, the bottom line is going to bear the imprimatur of the faculty, the student body, and the administration because all three are going to be engaging in this exercise.”

The debate over the clubs has raised 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.

Harvard argues that single-gender clubs, particularly the eight all-male final clubs, are increasingly out of step with the diverse campus. A university task force said last year that final clubs were the second most common location, after dormitories, for students to be sexually assaulted. The task force linked the clubs to a culture of male control that encourages “the marginalization of women and assumptions about sexual entitlement.”


Last May, Harvard announced that, starting with freshmen arriving this fall, students who join the clubs will be barred from leading campus organizations and sports teams and from receiving the dean’s recommendations for scholarships like the Fulbright and Rhodes.

Some professors argued the policy infringes on students’ right to free association because the clubs are private, off-campus organizations. Harry Lewis, a former dean, compared the idea of sanctioning students who join the clubs to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crackdown on suspected Communists in the 1950s.

“People think that’s overdramatic, but Harvard faculty were actually victims of McCarthy’s vendetta against members of the Communist Party,” Lewis said. “We may not like those organizations, but they’re outside, they’re private, they’re not unlawful, and people have a right to join them.”

Last year, more than 200 female students, many of them members of the six sororities and five all-female final clubs, denounced the policy during a rally on Harvard Yard.

Then, Lewis sought a faculty vote on a motion he filed opposing the policy. Several days before the vote, Khurana appeared to acknowledge the storm of criticism.

In an e-mail on Jan. 26, he announced that Harvard was setting up a faculty committee “to consider whether the policy can be improved, either by changing aspects of its existing structure or through some broader revision.” Khurana’s announcement added that the policy of sanctioning students who join the clubs would remain in effect “unless and until it is revised or replaced.”


The announcement prompted Lewis to withdraw his motion. He remains, however, cautious about the re-examination effort.

“The committee has serious work ahead, but I am sure that if it sets reasonable objectives it can come up with good ideas,” Lewis wrote on his blog. “Almost any idea, however, can be shot down on the grounds that it fails to meet some unattainable or utopian goal.”

In the interview, Khurana said he genuinely wants to hear from faculty.

“If they can come up with better ideas for a problem and an issue that’s been on this campus for more than 35 years, we invite that input,” he said. But, he added, “If organizations are going to have an impact, recruit from Harvard, and use Harvard history, then people of all genders should be recognized.”

Daniel Banks, a senior and former vice president of the undergraduate council, estimated that 70 percent of students believe final clubs should go co-ed, although there is sharp disagreement over how to achieve that goal.

Banks said he believes the sanctions against students who join the clubs need to be strengthened to be effective.

“For the last three decades, Harvard has turned a blind eye toward open discrimination of women, and my biggest fear is you’re going to have another class of students go through with these toxic organizations still in existence,” Banks said.


Representatives of several final clubs could not be reached for comment.

Shaiba Rather, a former president of Harvard’s undergraduate council, said that when Khurana announced that a committee would reexamine the issue, many faculty and students who support the clubs believed, “Oh, we’re saved, and these spaces will be saved.”

“But I think it’s really a question of how we’re going to change these groups,” Rather said. “There’s a long walk that these spaces have to take toward gender inclusion.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.