Harvard’s proposed ban of social clubs is overkill
A Harvard University committee’s recommendation to ban all social clubs at the college goes too far.
The draft policy, released on Wednesday, imitates policies at Williams College and Bowdoin College, which forbid undergraduates from joining social clubs. The policy is intended to reduce discrimination on campus, where a subset of organizations, particularly the all-male final clubs, have stratified the student body by gender, family income, and to a limited extent race. In a particularly heinous case last week, the briefly co-ed Fox Club kicked out all of its female members, just for being women.
Fighting this discrimination is a worthy goal. Yet by implementing the proposed policy, which plans to phase out most social clubs on campus by May of 2022, Harvard would introduce its own flavor of injustice, infringing on expectations of free association and dealing collateral damage to several newer communities that enrich campus life. Though Harvard is entitled to implement the policy as a private institution with voluntary membership — college students are not a protected class — the proposal is misguided and counterproductive.
In an e-mail to all undergraduates, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana announced the preliminary recommendations of the Committee on Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations. USGSOs include the seven ignominious all-male final clubs, as well as four less-objectionable all-female final clubs, five frats, and four sororities. Despite the committee’s name, its recommendations also extend to several co-ed social clubs.
The committee was established to review recently-implemented sanctions that would prohibit students who participate in USGSOs, starting with this fall’s freshman class, from holding leadership positions on campus or receiving crucial endorsements for scholarships like the Rhodes or Marshall.
The committee was expected to weaken those sanctions following criticism by students and faculty who accused the university of overreach. Harvard’s fledgling but popular sororities, which accept almost everyone and offend almost no-one, were particularly indignant. Instead of alleviating discontent, today’s recommendations go much further, guaranteeing a severe backlash.
When I arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 2014, the eight all-male final clubs dominated the scene (one, the Spee, has since gone co-ed). The clubs, which are essentially glorified frats, hosted the best parties on campus in their exclusive Harvard Square mansions. Freshmen women were encouraged to attend.
Any first-year men who made it past the door were blacklisted from “punching” the club the fall of their sophomore year, which is when the clubs slide embossed invitations under your door in the middle of the night, inviting you to successive rounds of increasingly-selective social events. The few who make it past the black-tie “final dinner” pay a hefty membership fee and are inducted into the wealthy, well-networked old boys’ club.
As sophomores, my roommate Sam Koppelman and I received several such punches, from clubs with names like Delphic, Fly, and Porcellian. Swept up by campus activism and a dollop of self-righteousness, we burned our invitations and wrote an op-ed in the Crimson that called on the clubs to accept women and match Harvard’s financial aid. Starting senior year next month, I stand by that op-ed: the final clubs must integrate, both in terms of gender and socioeconomic status. Just going co-ed is not enough. The clubs must also abandon their anachronistic elitism. However, the new policy — if implemented — will probably not accomplish either goal. Instead, it will further polarize students and faculty. It will also likely ignite legal battles between Harvard and the clubs, a few of which had already retained counsel to combat the current sanctions.
The all-male final clubs have been controversial ever since they nominally disaffiliated from Harvard in the 1980s to avoid going co-ed after the college merged with Radcliffe. Around this time, similar groups like the secret societies at Yale and the eating clubs at Princeton began accepting women. At Harvard, however, just one of the original eight all-male clubs has gone co-ed. This disparity has had consequences: in a 2015 survey by Harvard’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention, 47 percent of women who visited final clubs said they had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact.”
In the wake of the report, the (since-resigned) alumni president of the Porcellian claimed last year that going co-ed would increase opportunities for sexual assault. Statements and statistics like that justify Harvard’s effort to reform the all-male clubs — as today’s report noted, “no one has suggested doing nothing” — but at this point there is no justification for these excessive measures against all social groups, which is just one of many reasons the committee is likely to be rebuffed.
The new policy would be wrong independent of practical considerations. Several of the affected groups have taken tangible steps to become more accepting by going co-ed or providing support for the increasing number of students at Harvard who receive financial aid.
I am not a member of any of the affected clubs — the good or the bad — but many of my friends consider them an essential part of their college experience. Prohibiting an entire swath of organizations that contribute to Harvard’s social scene is unfair, unnecessary, and unlikely to succeed. This started with the all-male final clubs, and that’s where it should end, too.
Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz is a rising senior at Harvard University studying molecular biology.