Nine women have been stripped of their membership in one of Harvard University’s elite, traditionally all-male social clubs amid uncertainty over how the school might punish students who are members.
Two years ago, the Fox Club accepted women into its ranks for the first time, but the club’s alumni leaders recently decided not to allow those nine women, who have now graduated, to continue as club members. The decision surprised and angered many younger male members, according to correspondence between two members reviewed by the Globe.
The development is only the latest in the final club fracas that has festered over the past two years at Harvard. The university administration’s pressure on the clubs to admit women has ignited a campuswide debate over how much power a school should exercise over students’ off-campus activities. Even professors and students who loathe the clubs’ party culture and elitism have risen to their defense.
The recent decision of the Fox Club is complex, but it boils down to disagreement between younger members and older ones. Fox membership is for life, and the club is largely controlled by its alumni members, known as graduate members.
Two years ago, the Fox was one of several final clubs that did admit women, but did so in an unusual and fragmented way.
After the club’s undergraduate board admitted nine women in the fall of 2015, the club’s graduate members took a vote in August 2016 on whether to allow women in the club, and narrowly failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority.
As a compromise, the nine women were granted provisional membership, a new status for the club, which was founded in 1898 and counts among its members T.S. Eliot, Henry Cabot Lodge, Bill Gates, and Dan Koh, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The 2016 vote came after undergraduate Fox members in October 2015 wrote a three-page letter to the graduate members that said they wanted to admit women but also felt pressured by the university administration to do so. In solidarity, some men who were admitted that year also took provisional status.
But that provisional status expired last month. As a result, the graduate board decided that the male provisional members can reapply to continue as graduate members, but that invitation will not extend to female provisional members until such time as the club votes to add women to its membership.
For now, the club has also reverted to an all-male membership going forward, including last year’s inductees.
Based on correspondence between club members, the graduate board appears to have made its recent decision verbally because members were concerned about negative press that might hurt their recruitment season this fall, which is known as punch. As part of punch, graduate members of the clubs throw elaborate parties for prospective members at the club houses, at hotels in Boston, and sometimes in other cities or countries.
Several graduate Fox Club members said they learned of the graduate board’s decision to not allow the women members to reapply only after reading the Harvard Crimson, which broke the story. Douglas Sears, a past president of the club, criticized the decision and said the women should be allowed to continue on as members.
“I think it’s a travesty that this has come to this point,” he said in a brief phone interview.
Fox Club graduate board president Hugh M. Nesbit did not return requests for comment, nor did several other graduate and undergraduate club members, including former undergraduate president Daniel Skarzynski and several of the women.
But according to correspondence between two club members, the decision by the graduate board surprised and frustrated many members, especially because the graduate board did not vote on the matter at its spring dinner just a few months ago.
Male provisional members are now forced to decide whether to apply for graduate membership or, in continued solidarity, refuse to do so until the female provisional members are also allowed to re-join.
According to one graduate member, the process at the Fox has stalled because the club is waiting to see how and whether Harvard will ultimately decide to punish final club members.
The university’s administrators, including President Drew Faust, have said they believe the clubs contribute to a social atmosphere that leads to sexual assault.
Harvard has been under investigation by the US Department of Justice for its handling of sexual assault cases, and some club members have said they believe the school has cracked down on their organizations to send a message that it is serious about rooting out assault.
Because Harvard cannot formally sanction the off-campus clubs, it has tried a different approach. The policy it crafted last year would bar final club members — and members of any unsanctioned 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.
But pushback from faculty and students, as well as all-female clubs, caused the school to reconsider the policy. A new committee, which is charged with reviewing it, is expected to release its findings this month.
Other final clubs, most of which have remained all-male, are following the situation at the Fox carefully. But according to a graduate member of a different club, Fly Club, few are surprised by the Fox’s decision to revert to all-male status.
There is speculation among some clubs that the coed push by Harvard is nothing more than a plot to weaken the clubs to the point where they give up their prime real estate holdings around Harvard Square. Many clubs own mansions adjacent to campus that are worth millions.
“The path forward seems clear: Acquiesce to the administration’s baseless and open-ended demands and eventually forfeit club property, or defend your rights as legally independent Massachusetts corporations,” said the Fly Club graduate member, in an e-mail.