Open Season

Is a new era beginning on Garden Street?

“Punch” is probably the most versatile word in the Harvard lexicon. It can function as a noun, a verb, or an adjective, taking different subjects, objects, and meanings depending on context. And in this linguistic flexibility lies one of the basic facts about punching: In order to punch, one must be punched first.

While fraternities and sororities across the country let anyone audition for a spot—as do Princeton’s posh eating clubs—at Harvard, even the selection processes are invite-only.

For generations, freshmen have been introduced to this idiosyncrasy within their first few weeks at school courtesy of the Hasty Pudding Club, a centuries-old social institution that claims five U.S. Presidents as members (one of whom suspiciously graduated Harvard decades before the club was founded). In late September, many first-years find themselves sitting on the sidelines while their roommates—often the ones who hail from New York or Greenwich—are whisked off to participate in a peculiar process with a funny name over at the Pudding’s 2 Garden Street clubhouse.

At least, until now. Early this February, the Hasty Pudding Club ebulliently announced to its members that it would be conducting an “open punch,” abandoning the invite requirement for the first event of its spring membership tryout.

While the move sounds like a bold departure from over 200 years of exclusive tradition, a couple of caveats are in order. This new, open process is not entirely new, nor is it entirely open. From 2001 until 2003, the Pudding was forced to conduct a truly open punch, complete with postering in the Yard, due to its brief stint as an official student organization subject to the College’s anti-discrimination policies. Those earlier efforts make the Pudding’s current project look restrictive by comparison. This spring, the club still punched over 100 students the old fashioned way—though each was told that he or she could bring along friends, creating something of a hybrid between openness and exclusivity.

Yet this time the club is not being forced to act against its will, and members appear enthusiastic about the new policy. “It’s a great move,” Punchmaster Sam O. French ’12 told me, adding that he was “a big fan of democracy.”

Open punch is the brainchild of Kate C. Harris ’10, the Pudding’s President, who stewarded the initiative past the institution’s undergraduate and graduate boards, finding surprisingly little resistance along the way. She speaks about her project with the conviction of someone who senses she is on the right side of history: “I think it’s an exciting change for the Pudding, and I hope it will lead to more exciting change on campus in general,” she professes optimistically. Harris envisions that open punch could spread to Harvard’s final clubs as well, eliminating at least one element of the exclusivity that isolates them from the rest of campus. Logistical constraints make many club members skeptical about the prospect of such change, but if it ever came about, it would meaningfully alter the composition of the clubs and the way they are perceived by outsiders—something worth getting excited about.

With these heady thoughts in mind, I went to the first event of the new era at the Pudding clubhouse last Wednesday night. Excitement may have been in the air, but if so, it was drowned out by awkwardness, as punches milled around sipping non-alcoholic beverages and making abortive attempts at small talk. The vast majority explained they had been expressly asked to attend—I was only able to find a handful who came as other punches’ plus-ones. When I inquired why so few unpunched guests showed up, one freshman volunteered that many probably felt uncomfortable because they weren’t officially invited.

The numbers support this theory. All told, the Pudding punched some 115 students this spring, who were joined by only 30 additional “non-punch” candidates. The process may have been open, but a full 80 percent of those considered for membership received an official invitation.

Yet there are signs that the new system wasn’t for nothing. According to Harris, around 10 of the 30 non-punches advanced to the next round, compared with about 40 of the 115 official invites—meaning both groups fared comparably well. It remains to be seen how many of the 10 surviving non-punches will actually make it in, but it doesn’t seem too farfetched that a few will eventually be invited to join the club.

The possibility that two or three freshmen who never got that first punch envelope might squeak into the Pudding doesn’t signify much for the rest of the campus in and of itself. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

On Aug. 27, 1783—13 years after the Pudding’s umbrella organization was founded—an aging Benjamin Franklin watched with wonder while the world’s first hot air balloon ascended into the sky above an enthralled crowd on the Champs de Mars in Paris. “But what good is it?” someone called out, to which Franklin famously replied: “What good is a newborn baby?”

So too might open punch’s fledgling flight ultimately turn into something greater—a chink in the calcified armor of social institutions far too opposed to change for their own good.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. He is an inactive member of the Hasty Pudding Club. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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