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Harvard panel recommends barring students from final clubs

A faculty committee at Harvard University has recommended forbidding students from joining final clubs.
Katherine Taylor/The New York Times
A faculty committee at Harvard University has recommended forbidding students from joining final clubs.

Harvard University students would be forbidden from joining elite, off-campus clubs under a proposal made public Wednesday, upending more than 100 years of college tradition.

The policy applies to all “private, exclusionary social organizations” but the committee acknowledged its main target are seven all-male final clubs, many of which have wealthy endowments and own off-campus mansions in Harvard Square.

Harvard wants to “phase out” the final clubs, as well as sororities and fraternities, beginning in the fall of 2018, according to a plan compiled by a faculty committee after months of deliberation and research. Students who joined such organizations could be expelled or suspended.

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Harvard president Drew Faust will ultimately decide whether the policy will be adopted. She had no public comment Wednesday.

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The proposal is the latest, and most severe, step in the university’s war against the clubs, which administrators say foster a social scene that is discriminatory and unsafe.

“Time after time, the social organizations have demonstrated behavior inconsistent with an inclusive campus culture, a disregard for the personhood and safety of fellow students, and an unwillingness to change — even as new students join them over generations,” the report said.

In November 2013, for example, the Fox Club house was shut down by its alumni members for a raucous party that included nudity, alcohol, and “women in shark costumes.” Administrators say the clubs foster an environment where sexual harassment and assault are more likely.

The proposal sparked fierce, immediate opposition from final club members and others who say Harvard has no business telling students how they can behave off campus.

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Professor Harry Lewis, a chief opponent of Harvard’s crusade against the clubs, said the recommendation puts Harvard in a position that combines “arrogance with insecurity” and said faculty will be likely to object to administrators’ unilateral decision-making on the issue.

“The university would suspend ordinary freedom of association rights so that Harvard can pick which off-campus clubs students can join,” the computer science professor wrote in a statement. “This is not the way to prepare the citizens of a free society.”

The proposed policy would take effect beginning with freshmen who enter in the fall of 2018.

That means no Harvard undergraduates at all would be members by 2022, according to the report.

The seven all-male final clubs at Harvard have secret traditions and mysterious names like The Delphic, the Fox, and the Porcellian. Many were founded in the 1800s, and their alumni include graduates like T.S. Eliot, Henry Cabot Lodge, Bill Gates, and John F. Kennedy.

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There are also four all-female final clubs as well as five fraternities and four sororities. The policy would also apply to two previously male clubs that now accept all genders, two previously female clubs that accept all genders, and the Hasty Pudding Club, a traditionally all-male theater group that is now gender-neutral.

“The final clubs in particular were products of their time. Due to their resistance to change over the decades, they have lapsed into products behind their time,” the report said. “Despite repeated attempts to encourage them to reform, there seems to be no simple solution that will bring them into greater accord with the forward-looking aspirations of the university.”

This is Harvard’s second try at a policy to curtail the clubs’ sway over undergraduate social life. A policy introduced a year ago 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. Amid pushback, Harvard convened the committee to rethink that policy.

The committee was cochaired by undergraduate dean Rakesh Khurana, the chief opponent of the clubs among administrators, and Suzannah Clark, chairwoman of the music department.

In the 22-page report the committee released Wednesday afternoon, the committee said it based its new approach on the policies of other elite colleges. Williams College forbade students from joining fraternities in 1962; Bowdoin College did the same in 1997.

The report said the committee reviewed surveys from students from 2010 to 2015 that contained both positive and negative feedback about the final clubs. The committee acknowledged that there have been complaints that the survey data are incomplete but said it consistently heard complaints about the clubs.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the message they are sending us: The kinds of problems they describe are unacceptable in the modern age and they profoundly violate the values of Harvard University,” the report said. It did not say what the students described.

It also included an anonymous letter from a male student who urged the school to ban the clubs. He described the feeling of exclusion when non-club members hear whispers about black-tie dinners in secret spaces.

He said “the structure of Harvard’s social life is the college’s greatest weakness.”

The report acknowledged its findings will be controversial and included the opinion of one dissenting committee member.

“I am unconvinced that the policy, when implemented, will solve the [discrimination] problems,” wrote biology professor David Haig.

Haig said the new policy will “escalate the conflict” between the school and the social clubs. He pointed out that nearly two-thirds of voting undergraduates voted to repeal the first set of final club sanctions in a referendum last year.

Faust has led Harvard’s push to marginalize the final clubs.

Administrators first tried to pressure the all-male clubs to admit women, which some did, but that caused fierce division within some clubs. Then in May 2016 the school introduced a policy restricting on-campus privileges. That policy will apply to the class of 2021, who enter this fall, unless the administration decides otherwise.

Meanwhile, nine women were stripped of their membership in the Fox Club last month because of a disagreement between undergraduates and alumni members of the club over whether the women can continue as members after graduation.

Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge civil rights attorney who has worked on behalf of the Fly Club, said he thinks the controversy is evidence of a larger issue — that administrators have gained nearly unilateral control over university decision-making.

Last fall, many professors opposed the final club sanctions but agreed to quiet their opposition until the committee produced its findings.

Members of several Greek life organizations balked at the proposed sanctions. No members of final clubs responded to requests for comment.

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities, issued a statement.

“Freedom of association and speech are paramount for the intellectual and spiritual growth of students. We urge Harvard to focus on creating a culture of health and safety on campus that also respects students’ rights,” wrote spokeswoman Heather Kirk in a statement.

Camille N’Diaye-Muller, the undergraduate president of Delta Gamma, said she found her sorority to be a place where women of diverse backgrounds supported one another.

“It has been the standard of a safe space for me and a lot of other women,” she said.

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