Harvard seems poised to take a major step toward cracking down on sexual assaults on its undergraduate campus by forcing its all-male social clubs to admit women. That’s a big deal at the tradition-bound Ivy League school, and the fact that Harvard is taking action now is as strong a sign as any that the nationwide push to reduce campus sexual assaults is translating into substantive improvement at even the most change-resistant of colleges.
Fraternities may not be a problem at every college, but their equivalent institutions at Harvard certainly are. The college’s so-called “final clubs,” which are mainstays of campus social life but generally admit only men as members, have been an embarrassment for decades. Now a campus task force has confirmed that they aggravate unhealthy gender dynamics, and contribute to an atmosphere that makes sexual assault more likely.
The fact that Harvard is finally addressing a problem that has existed since the college went co-ed — and which its administrators once claimed they had no power to change, because the college does not control the clubs — is visible proof that the Obama administration’s demands that colleges do more to uproot sexual assault is forcing them to confront sacred cows. The final clubs have alumni, and the alumni have money, but Harvard is acting anyway.
The college’s dean, Rakesh Khurana, is reportedly considering disciplining students who join the clubs, which has produced a panicked reaction from their defenders. Club members say that students should have the right to free association, but free association at a private college doesn’t entail a right to participate in organizations that have been shown to endanger classmates.
It helps that the organizations — exclusionary clubs dressed up as pillars of tradition — have shown themselves to be deeply unsympathetic. That much was clear when Harpoon beer president Charles M. Storey, an alumnus of one of the clubs, waded into the controversy with a tin-eared defense of excluding women. If clubs were forced to admit women, he said, it might actually increase the odds of sexual assault — logic that would seem to suggest that women should have to lose opportunities simply because some men can’t restrain themselves. Though he quickly apologized, Storey damaged his own reputation, that of his club, and that of his company.
Storey’s not the first Harvard graduate to suffer from his association with the final clubs; recall how Governor Deval Patrick had to face questions about his membership in a different club after it proved an embarrassment during the 2006 campaign. It would be nice if the social and professional consequences of belonging to such backwards groups made enough Harvard men think twice about joining them so that they faded away on their own.
Until then, though, the college has a responsibility to do everything it can to force them to integrate — or disappear. Harvard isn’t the first to confront the problem posed by all-male groups on campus, and it shouldn’t be the last.