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Harvard wants lawsuits by sororities, fraternities dismissed

Harvard University.
Harvard University. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Harvard University on Friday moved to dismiss a pair of lawsuits brought by national fraternities and sororities that claim the school has unfairly penalized women in its effort to crack down on male-only social clubs.

The Harvard motions respond to two suits, one state and one federal, filed in December against the university in response to its new policy that penalizes students who join off-campus single-gender social clubs.

The suits cap a years-long battle between the undergraduate administration at Harvard and the off-campus final clubs, elite social organizations for male students that the college has characterized as places that foster sexual assault and exclusivity.

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The lawsuits argue that Harvard’s sanctions against anyone who joins a single-gender club, while intended to cripple the infamous male clubs, have inadvertently penalized female-only clubs, which serve as safe spaces for women.

Harvard’s motions, filed late Friday, assert that the school’s policy does not discriminate against male or female students, does not discipline students, and is measured and lawful.

“The policy allows students to make a fully informed choice,” said college spokeswoman Rachael Dane in a press release issued Friday.

Dane added that the college has always been clear that it never welcomed fraternities or sororities to the Harvard social scene. Former Harvard president Drew Faust in 2017 said that Harvard should not become a Greek school, Dane said.

“Harvard should not have to change its commitment to non-discrimination and educational philosophy for outside organizations that are not aligned with our longstanding mission,” she said in the release.

Beginning in 2015, Harvard administrators made several attempts to force the final clubs to accept women and ultimately decided in 2016 on a controversial policy that levies on-campus penalties for membership in any off-campus single-gender social club. Starting with the class that entered in the fall of 2017, students who join such an organization are barred from leadership positions, such as being captain of a varsity athletic team, or receiving a college endorsement for a prestigious graduate fellowship or scholarships, including the Rhodes.

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One effect of that policy has been the near death of all-female clubs, many of which have become co-ed and disassociated with their national umbrella organizations. Unlike the men’s clubs, the oldest of which were founded in 1791, the female clubs are much newer and do not own Harvard Square mansions or throw alcohol-fueled ragers. Female members argue the clubs serve as safe spaces for women to find camaraderie at what can still seem like a male-dominated institution.

“Sororities transcend all academic and extracurricular interests in a way that most clubs at Harvard do not,” said Rebecca Ramos, a 2017 Harvard graduate who was president of the Harvard chapter of Delta Gamma chapter, in an interview Thursday ahead of the Harvard filings.

The female groups argue that a student could join the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan without running afoul of the sanctions, simply because those groups are co-ed, but not a sorority or female final club.

The plaintiffs for the federal suit are Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, international sororities; Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, international fraternities; Sigma Alpha Epsilon — Massachusetts Gamma, the local chapter; and three current Harvard students who are members of male clubs.

In their response Friday, Harvard pushed back on those assertions. In the state motion, lawyers rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that the policy infringes on students’ freedom of association and their civil rights, saying students cannot prove that they have been subject to threats, intimidation, or coercion.

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In the federal motion, Harvard argued that students who join the off-campus clubs remain in good standing and are not subject to discipline. It also argued that the policy is sex-neutral, rejecting the claim that it violates Title IX, the federal law against sex discrimination.

“Every student subject to this policy retains the freedom to choose membership in a single-gender social organization over access to certain privileges and resources provided by Harvard, and the consequences of that choice are made clear before any student chooses to enroll,” the federal motion said.

The federal motion was filed late Friday in court; the state motion was delivered to the plaintiffs and will be filed at a later date, the university said.


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