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Harvard sticks with restrictions on all-male clubs, eliciting lawsuit threats

The fate of Harvard’s storied final clubs has sparked fierce debate among students, faculty, and graduates for two years.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File
The fate of the Harvard’s storied final clubs has sparked fierce debate among students, faculty, and graduates for two years.

Harvard University announced Tuesday that it will not ban its exclusive all-male final clubs outright but will continue to sanction their members, upholding the college’s current policy.

The fate of the social clubs, which count US presidents and powerbrokers among their alumni, has sparked fierce debate among Harvard’s students, faculty, and graduates over the past two years.

University administrators have sought to phase out the off-campus groups, blaming them for social divisions and alcohol-fueled parties that have led to sexual assaults. This summer, a faculty committee recommended the most severe punishment yet: that students who join final clubs, as well as single-gender fraternities and sororities, be suspended or expelled.

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That plan, which would have effectively put an end to the clubs, touched off a firestorm of criticism. Alumni threatened to withhold donations, free speech advocates argued that Harvard had overstepped its legal authority, and students balked at the proposed restrictions on their social lives.

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On Tuesday, university officials said they had decided to maintain the current policy, which restricts students who join unrecognized single-gender groups from leading campus organizations and sports teams and bars them from receiving recommendations from the dean for Rhodes or Marshall scholarships.

“Ultimately, students have the freedom to decide which is more important to them: membership in a gender-discriminatory organization or access to those privileges and resources,” Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, said in a statement released with William Lee, a Boston lawyer and the head of the university’s governing board.

The policy was instituted in 2016 and began with this year’s incoming class.

The decision to maintain the status quo was met with anger and threats of lawsuits from the clubs’ representatives.

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“Harvard could not be more wrong,” said Heather Kirk, a spokeswoman for the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities and is considering legal action against the policy. “It’s ironic that one of the most exclusive institutions in the world is limiting what organizations students can join.”

Rick Porteus, graduate president of the all-male Fly Club, said it has existed for more than 180 years and isn’t going anywhere. He said Harvard should not dictate how students spend their free time and criticized the college for not fostering a better social life on campus.

The clubs are socioeconomically and racially diverse, he said, something Harvard has ignored. “This is really a childish approach to maturing young adults into full adulthood,” he said.

Fly Club members will meet to discuss whether to sue, representatives said.

Harvard has eight unrecognized male final clubs, with secret traditions and mysterious names like the Delphic, the Fox, and the Porcellian. Many were founded in the 1800s, and their alumni include T.S. Eliot, Henry Cabot Lodge, Bill Gates, and John F. Kennedy.

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The clubs hold sizable endowments and own stately homes near Harvard Square where students line up to attend their parties.

Harvard also has six female final clubs, as well as five fraternities and four sororities, all unrecognized by the university.

Heather Furnas, a California plastic surgeon whose daughter graduated from Harvard this year, said that sororities and women’s groups are unfairly being swept up by this policy. She has warned the college that she will not make future donations because of this issue.

“How does membership in women’s clubs warrant being barred from leadership positions, being captain of a varsity athletic team, or receiving a college endorsement for a prestigious graduate fellowship?” Furnas asked.

“Harvard’s sanction of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations in the name of diversity is effectively social engineering. I just don’t feel comfortable with social engineering.”

Typically, the decision on the final clubs would have been made by Faust. But because she is stepping down as president in June, Harvard’s governing board voted on the policy. Faust is a member of the governing board.

Since Harvard began debating the policy, one of the final clubs and a fraternity have become gender-neutral, and a men’s club and a women’s club decided to share resources.

University officials said those are signs the campus culture is changing.

Harvard said it will review the policy in five years to determine whether it is effective.

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