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Harvard panel back-pedals on social club ban after backlash

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

Harvard University’s campus.

By Globe Staff 

Facing a backlash from faculty, students, and alumni over its far-reaching proposal to ban all exclusive, off-campus clubs at Harvard University, a panel studying the issue on Friday offered more measured options for dealing with the century-old organizations.

“The College must take action to address the detrimental impact of the unrecognized single-gender social organizations,” the committee said in its final report released Friday afternoon. “At the same time, as a committee, we did not reach consensus about the path forward.”

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The committee’s admission that there are “significant differences” on how to deal with the clubsreflects their grip on Harvard’s social scene and the difficulty the administration has faced in reining them in.

The committee’s report suggested two distinct options and then a third that included a grab bag of suggestions. Aside from the ban on all elite clubs, the final panel report also suggested that Harvard could stick with the current policy barring membership to single-gender groups. Alternatively, the college could take a softer touch in dealing with clubs, including persuading parents and students of the dangerous behaviors that can take place, creating more social spaces on campus, and bringing in the police more often to address illegal and harmful activities.

“This report represents a good deal of back-pedaling of a committee whose initial thoughts were rebuffed,” said Rick Porteus, graduate president of Harvard’s Fly Club, which has opposed the proposed restrictions on the clubs.

Harvard has been trying for several years to develop a policy that would restrict these social groups, particularly the seven traditionally all-male final clubs, with their elite membership rolls and Cambridge mansions. Administrators blame the clubs for unruly parties that have led to underage drinking and sexual assault, and for fostering a divisive culture.

This past summer, a panel of administrators, faculty, and students who spent months researching and debating the issue, drafted a recommendation that would phase out all final clubs, as well as sororities and fraternities, beginning in the fall of 2018. Under the proposed policy, students who joined such organizations could be expelled or suspended.

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But critics argued that the proposal went too far. Some faculty members worried that Harvard would be overstepping its role and interfering with the right of students to freely associate with whomever they wanted off-campus.

Members of sororities and the women’s final clubs protested that they had been unfairly targeted in the broad policy and said their organizations provided refuge and networking opportunities that were otherwise unavailable.

Some alumni and families threatened to withdraw donations to the university. And the committee spent a significant amount of time discussing whether the sanctions were even legal.

Camille N’Diaye-Muller, a senior and undergraduate president of the Delta Gamma sorority, said the committee’s new report offers some hope for these social organizations.

“At least they are starting to listen to their students,” N’Diaye-Muller said. “I am cautiously optimistic for now.”

The Harvard panel’s final report comes just days before the college’s faculty will begin debating the social group policy.

Harvard president Drew Faust will ultimately decide what policy will be adopted.

This is a second attempt by Harvard to address the final clubs. In May 2016, the school adopted a policy that blocks students who belong to single-gender social organizations from holding leadership positions on campus organizations and sports teams, and disqualifies them from recommendations from the dean for a prestigious Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. That policy went into effect this fall.

But a more sustained campaign to dissuade students from participating in male final clubs and their events may be more effective in addressing the problem, said Jason Mitchell, a psychology professor and a member of the committee who penned a separate minority report.

“For much of the past 16 months, we have been led to think in binary terms,” Mitchell wrote. “Either we take the extraordinary step of patrolling the off-campus social lives of students, or we wave a white flag of surrender to the status quo and acquiesce as the final clubs continue to exert an adverse effect on our community.”

Mitchell also blasted the administration for usurping the faculty’s role in making policy decisions about these sanctions.

Many have been “disturbed by what we view as unprecedented administrative overreach,” Mitchell wrote. “It is hard to overstate how divisive and demoralizing this posture towards the faculty has been.”

Faculty members on Tuesday will discuss the social club proposals and consider motions, including whether to invalidate the current policy that penalizes students who participate in single-gender groups.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.