Harvard’s toxic final clubs culture

The interior of the Porcellian Club, a final club at Harvard University, in 1909.
The interior of the Porcellian Club, a final club at Harvard University, in 1909.(Unknown Photographer)

Earlier this week, Harvard President Drew Faust announced that students who participate in unrecognized single-gender social organizations will be ineligible for official leadership positions, and will not receive college endorsement for fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. The policy is aimed at final clubs, technically unaffiliated groups whose presence plays a large role in shaping undergraduate social life.

Most critiques of the new policy are disingenuous and intellectually lazy. “Free association,” its detractors cry, as though Harvard, too, weren’t an association with a responsibility to its students. In this case, that amounts to not bestowing honors upon adults who choose to associate themselves with groups whose values are indefensible.

Gender discrimination is, of course, precisely that. Faust wrote earlier this year that clubs uphold arcane notions of “gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity,” a premise no one can, in good faith, deny. Privilege and exclusivity are final clubs’ very allure. That they frequently grant men the power to control women’s access to social spaces is part of their draw.


But while Faust was right not to limit her critique to the clubs’ single-sex membership policies, to do so was also, ultimately, disingenuous. The university’s attempt to coerce clubs into going coed only addresses the first two problems on her list. If anything, it threatens to socially insulate club members further, since they will no longer have to look outside of their organizations to develop cross-gender relationships. And much as it’s important that cross-gender socialization occur on an equal playing field, cross-class socialization must happen on similar terms. The latter is uniquely important during college, the first time most students have meaningful exposure to peers whose class background differs from their own.

In some respects, Harvard recognizes the importance, on its face, of class mingling. Freshmen are required to live in on-campus dorms, and upperclass housing is randomized. But in other respects, Harvard’s admissions policies benefit the students whose presence keeps the privately funded clubs alive: wealthy children of alumni. The clubs are not the crux of the problem, but reflective of it — the rich are overrepresented at Harvard.

There are any number of concrete steps Harvard could take that would deliver stronger blows than this sanction. It could cease to limit opportunities for less affluent students who qualify for financial aid with its paternalistic expectations that they make contributions with summer job earnings, expectations which “cannot be waived for students choosing to volunteer or participate in unpaid internships.” It could forgo its need-blind admissions policy and instead commit to one of active class-based affirmative action to supplement its commitment to racial diversity. It could stop privileging the already privileged by instituting a legacy-blind admission policy or doing away with its z-list, a mechanism for offering rich students and legacies deferred admission.


As norms are continuously shifting and evolving in favor of greater inclusivity, Harvard is right to stay ahead of the curve, to demand that its student leaders live up to certain moral standards. But the institution needs to live up to the standards put forth in its own lofty rhetoric as well. If Harvard truly wants to put an end to the toxic campus culture created by final clubs, perhaps it should start not by censuring the clubs’ membership policies, but by reconsidering its own.

Silpa Kovvali is a contributor to Salon. She graduated from Harvard in 2010. Follow her on Twitter @SilpaKov.