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The debate over Harvard final clubs isn’t going away anytime soon

Students return to Harvard University this week and the entering freshman class is the first to be subject to a new policy that punishes students who join elite final clubs, fraternities, or sororities.
Students return to Harvard University this week and the entering freshman class is the first to be subject to a new policy that punishes students who join elite final clubs, fraternities, or sororities.(Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File)

As students return to Harvard University this week, the controversy over the administration’s attempt to ban students from joining off-campus social clubs is heating up again.

The entering freshmen class is the first to be subject to a new policy that punishes students who join elite male-only final clubs, female-only clubs, fraternities, and sororities.

In a move that rekindled the debate, professor Harry Lewis, a former dean of the undergraduate college and a computer science professor, filed a motion signed by 21 professors Monday opposing that policy.

“Students should be punished for things they do, not for clubs they join,” said Lewis, who has led the faculty movement against the policy since last year, not because he likes the clubs but because he says the policy infringes on civil liberties.

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For more than a year, Harvard has been consumed in a debate over whether administrators should be able to bar students from joining final clubs, a group of exclusive organizations that have dominated school social life for decades.

The all-male clubs operate independently of the college, own mansions in Harvard Square, and hold parties and guest-listed social events that many say unfairly exclude some students and foster an environment where sexual harassment and assault are more likely.

The debate has also divided students. Many women have said the policy unfairly penalizes female-only clubs that do not have the same party culture as some of the male clubs. This summer members of at least one all-male club, The Fox, have begun to organize to write letters to professors this fall opposing the administration’s efforts to curtail the clubs, and are considering holding a march or peaceful rally, according to one member.

The administrator leading the push to minimize the clubs’ influence over student social life is Rakesh Khurana, the dean of undergraduate students. In a welcome e-mail to incoming freshmen sent last week, Khurana mentioned the new policy, which forbids students who join the off-campus single-gender social clubs from holding leadership positions in student organizations or sports teams and disqualifies them for endorsement letters from the college for fellowships.

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“This policy does not prevent you from choosing your own path at Harvard, but it does make clear the college’s position on discrimination,” he wrote to the freshmen.

The seven all-male final clubs have secret traditions and mysterious names like Delphic, Fox, and Porcellian. Many were founded in the 1800s, and their alumni include T.S. Eliot, Henry Cabot Lodge, Bill Gates, and John F. Kennedy. There are also five gender-neutral clubs, four all-female final clubs, as well as five fraternities and four sororities.

Lewis filed a similar motion to last year to nullify the penalties for final club and Greek organization members, but withdrew it when college administrators, amid a backlash, appointed a special committee to reexamine the policy that punishes students for joining the clubs.

That committee released its findings in July, but instead of loosening the penalties, as some expected, or hoped, the committee recommended an even stronger policy: forbidding students from joining the clubs altogether.

Khurana was cochair of that committee, whose report called the clubs’ influence at Harvard “pernicious” and said some have a “zest for exclusion and gender discrimination.”

“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.

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The report cited other elite colleges like Bowdoin, in Maine, that have banned fraternities as models for the type of policy it recommended.

This fall, faculty are invited to “drop-in discussion sessions” hosted by the committee to comment on the new recommendation for a stronger policy. Notes from the meetings will inform the committee’s final report and recommendations to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who will make the ultimate decision on what policy to adopt.

The committee also plans to seek feedback from students for its final report, which is set to be complete by Sept. 25, according to an e-mail from Khurana to faculty sent this month.

Lewis’ latest motion will be considered at the first faculty meeting of the semester, in October.

Members of the final clubs, meanwhile, are closely watching what Harvard is doing. Some have considered legal action against Harvard for infringing on students’ right to freely associate, but so far nothing has been filed.

“We hope it doesn’t become a matter of litigation because that would signal a real shift to intolerance on Harvard’s part,” said Rick Porteus, graduate president of the Fly Club. Membership in the final clubs is for life and they are governed by an undergraduate board as well as a board of alumni, known as graduate members.

Biology professor David Haig is one of the 21 faculty who signed latest Lewis’ motion. Haig also served on the review committee and wrote a dissenting opinion that said forbidding students from joining the clubs would not fix the problems of discrimination and exclusivity.

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Haig said he hopes faculty are allowed to vote on Lewis’ motion before the administration makes a final decision on the new policy.

“This is an example of more and more power going to managerial classes,” he said.


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