Behind the Fox Club’s Closure, A Club Divided

Pressure from Harvard administrators has rattled the 117-year-old Fox Club

When the Fox Club shut its doors on JFK Street in mid-November, just weeks after its student leadership had made the historic decision to admit women to the once all-male institution, the off-campus final club’s undergraduates were pitted against their alumni.

Undergraduate leaders, determined to make the move to go co-ed after more than a year of ongoing discussion and research and some added pressure from Harvard administrators, saw pushback from the club’s graduate leadership, who closed the clubhouse amidst controversy over the decision and assigned new members a provisional status.

Behind the graduate board action to close the club, though, was more division.

Some club alumni had worked alongside undergraduate leaders as Harvard administrators pressured them to admit women, weighing available options and acknowledging that the club might indeed go co-ed despite the opposition of many graduates.

Not all alumni, however, were so receptive, dozens of emails and internal club correspondence recently obtained by The Crimson reveal. Pressure from Harvard administrators, who have increasingly criticized the College’s unrecognized social scene, has rattled the governance structures of the 117-year-old Fox Club.

As Fox undergraduates lobbied to admit women to their membership this fall, graduate board leaders struggled to toe the line with a group of other alumni who organized their own platform in opposition of the change. That group of alumni, who call themselves the “Friends of the Fox Club,” repeatedly pushed for the club to curtail any immediate plans to go co-ed, staunchly opposed to leaving the decision in the hands of undergraduates alone. They called foul when the undergraduates voted to admit women, saying the move blindsided and effectively circumvented the graduate membership, with whom they claim the right to make any major decision about the club’s future rests.

The Friends of the Fox organized an arm of alumni and quickly took action, calling for a special meeting to discuss the pressures facing the club and the ongoing discussions about a membership change. They emailed club graduates en masse, organized their own website, and called on the club graduate board to postpone the upcoming initiations of prospective women members.

Partly couching their disagreement in concerns about liability, the Friends of the Fox called on the club to slow down, arguing that undergraduates could not admit women to their ranks without a two-thirds vote of the graduate membership.

“As graduates, we must act upon our sense of duty to protect the club that we love and not allow it to be hijacked by a small group of undergraduates who were only just invited into our membership and still have yet to scratch the surface of the club’s legacy,” the group wrote in a confidential presentation distributed ahead of the special meeting.

At the heart of their critique is a fundamental disagreement over the role and purpose of the Fox Club. To this faction of club alumni, the institution belongs foremost to its graduates, not the students who frequent it day to day. The current state of affairs at the Fox is precarious, marked by leadership turnover, tensions over the club’s move to go co-ed still raw.

‘SUPPORT THE UNDERGRADUATES’

When some Fox undergraduates advocated to admit women to their membership in 2014, their graduate board was less than enthusiastic about the proposal. Rev. Douglas W. Sears ’69, then the president of the Fox’s graduate board, told one undergraduate leading the push to go co-ed to draft a report detailing the specifics on how the club would ever make that change.

Undergraduates, it seems, did just that, writing an extensive report outlining their answers to potential “logistical concerns” of the transition, ranging from questions about clubhouse bathroom arrangements to necessary changes to its selection and initiation procedures.

This fall, with pressure from Harvard on final clubs to go co-ed mounting, Fox undergraduates renewed their call. This time, some club graduate leaders worked with them to navigate the growing administrative scrutiny. Some graduate board members spoke with Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, among the most prominent critics of final clubs, according to email correspondence among club alumni; one alumnus, Rex G. Baker ’05, was tasked with acting as a liaison between undergraduate and graduate club members and offered the students his hand, even driving to the club to offer his help, he told club affiliates in an email message in late November.

Graduate board leaders, they later told other club alumni in a memorandum, believed that the decision to go co-ed ultimately rested with undergraduates, citing a provision in the club’s constitution that gives undergraduate members “complete control of the election of new members” and the fact that it included no explicit prohibition on the election of women to the club.

Still, arguing that a move to go co-ed could be seen as one that “would change the fundamental nature or character of the Club,” graduate board members thought they should seek a vote of club alumni, as their bylaws require in the case of such a dramatic change, the memo says.

After undergraduates told them in mid-September that they “intended to open the Club to female members,” graduate board leaders voted, seven to one, to “support the undergraduates” as long as women were not elected before the broader graduate membership had a chance to vote on the matter and approved it with two-thirds in support, according to the memo.

The graduate board scheduled a meeting for Nov. 22. Although they urged undergraduates to wait until this date to go ahead with their plans to admit women, the students moved forward with their plan. On Oct. 19, they wrote a letter to club alumni, informing them of their decision and pitching the move as stemming from the firm belief that it was the “right thing to do” and expedited by pressure from Harvard.

“The Fox now has an opportunity to gain an impressive class of women Foxes, women you all would be proud to count as fellow members,” the undergraduates wrote.

Daniel T. Skarzynski ’16 and Patrick E. Dowling ’16, then the Fox’s undergraduate president and vice president, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

‘FRIENDS OF THE FOX CLUB’

At the time, undergraduates hinted at graduate member dissent, citing in their letter alumni who had discussed shuttering the club and making it a graduate group only. Internal emails recently obtained by The Crimson show that the pushback to which they alluded was in fact sizeable, especially among a contingent of alumni members who fundamentally disagreed with the move and rallied for its reversal, or at least for a pause.

In particular, a vocal contingent of club alumni known as the Friends of the Fox, mostly composed of graduates from the late 1970s and early 1980s, was opposed. That group did not readily accept the urgency that the undergraduates described as a reason to expedite the move to go co-ed and rejected the arguments of Harvard administrators who pushed for it.

Even before the graduate board leadership planned to ask alumni to meet on Nov. 22 to vote on whether the club should go co-ed as its undergraduates proposed, the Friends of the Fox were organizing.

In September, one club alumnus had distributed a proposal for how the club could respond to the ongoing pressures from Harvard, titled “The Fox Club: Planning for our Future.” That proposal laid out a timeline for discussion—one much longer than that proposed by undergraduates—involving the work of various sub-committees and focus groups to draft suggestions and present them to the broader membership before reaching any decision in early June.

Alumni affiliated with Friends of the Fox petitioned in early October to call for a special meeting about potential changes to the club. They called on 20 or more Fox members to affirm the request.

A couple of weeks later, on Oct. 22, Fox Club leaders forwarded a notice from a group of alumni, primarily graduates in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calling for a special meeting to outline the future of the club in light of existing pressures and undergraduate plans.

“Over the past few weeks, a number of voices have stated that the time for discussion has passed, that things are moving too quickly, the University is forcing our hand, the undergrads may get kicked out of school, etc. Despite these pressure tactics, due process is both essential—and a requirement,” the group of Fox alumni wrote.

The Fox members referenced the Fox Club graduate board association’s bylaws, which they wrote stipulated “action that would fundamentally alter the nature or character of the corporation of the Fox Club” requires a graduate board vote. They argued that going co-ed would constitute such a change.

The group of alumni attached an updated version of the September “Planning for our Future” proposal to the message. In the email, they argued that accepting an undergraduate move to go co-ed before convening would be premature.

“Precipitous action taken in advance of a false deadline and prior to the November special meeting will seriously divide the Club and put its future at risk. That would be a tragedy,” the group concluded.

‘UTTER DISREGARD’

The Fox undergraduates moved ahead, accepting women as members before that meeting, and the graduate board struggled to recalibrate, prompting even more criticism from other angry alumni, correspondence indicates.

Undergraduates had scheduled to initiate their new female members on Oct. 31, and ahead of that date, graduate board leaders received requests to cancel or stall it, according to a late October email from the board of directors and multiple other internal messages from club affiliates obtained by The Crimson.

The graduate board elected to allow the planned initiation to proceed, but they reached a compromise first: All new members—both male and female—would hold a “provisional” status, contingent on the “full graduate body” voting on whether they should be converted to full members in the spring. Sears, meanwhile, was replaced as graduate board president by Hugh M. Nesbit ’77.

As those negotiations unfolded, the Friends of the Fox crafted their arguments against the change and how it was made. Ten days before the planned special meeting on Nov. 22, the Fox graduate board sent an email to alumni on behalf of the Friends of the Fox. That message contained a 12-page, password-protected document, signed by the Friends of the Fox Club and labeled “PRIVILEGED & CONFIDENTIAL.”

The presentation, which decries the process by which the club initially moved to go co-ed, described the Friends of the Fox and their agenda: “We are [a] grass roots group of Fox Club graduates that spontaneously and informally coalesced, united in our purpose of furthering the object of the club we hold dear: to bring together men of high standards and congenial tastes, to promote good fellowship, and to form lasting friendships,” they wrote.

Using strong language and holding back no criticism, the group lambasted Harvard and the Fox’s own undergraduates, who they argued had acted too quickly and against the spirit of the organization’s governance structures—namely, without the approval of its graduates. They also questioned the efficacy of the Fox’s graduate board leadership, calling them complacent in what they characterized as a deeply flawed process behind the membership change.

“It seems clear that Harvard has flexed its muscle with the Final Clubs in unprincipled and pernicious ways, using its institutional machinery and bully pulpit to harass undergraduate Final Club members while seeking to enrich itself by improving its image somehow,” they wrote under the heading “The Perils of Bad Governance.”

“We lament that Harvard has provided the dictatorial impetus for bludgeoning our undergraduate members, causing them to themselves behave like despots,” they added.

According to the Friends of the Fox, club undergraduates had shown “utter disregard” to the directives of the club’s graduate board association and presented a “fait accompli.” The Fox’s graduate board, the presentation also argued, “has been pliant and has failed to provide the stalwart leadership and judicious guidance that our undergraduate members so sorely needed during this difficult time.”

Again referencing the Fox graduate association’s bylaws, the Friends of the Fox argued in the presentation that a serious membership change, such as admitting women, would need graduate approval. They also argued that the bylaws prohibited undergraduates from voting on such changes and that power ultimately rested in the hands of the club’s graduate members since the bylaws exclude undergraduates from the definition of “Club Members.”

“Fundamentally, the Fox is run by graduates for the benefit of undergraduates and graduates alike. The undergraduates’ actions wholly miss that critical point,” they wrote.

Although critical of what it characterized as administrative pressure on final clubs to admit women, the presentation alleged that Fox undergraduates had cited a “false” deadline from the University to go co-ed. The document, referencing legal arguments similar to the defense recently offered by a graduate member of the A.D. Club, argued that the Fox had the right to remain all-male and challenged undergraduates who disagreed to leave.

“Undergraduates who do not like the policies or the membership composition of the Fox Club have numerous other options for socializing both on- and off-campus,” the presentation stated in bold typeface.

“The long arc of the Fox’s storied 118-year history stands to be bent or broken over the coming days and weeks. Whatever the final outcome, it is important decisions are reached through a fair and due process,” they wrote.

On Nov. 14, two days after the Friends of the Fox shared their message and one day after a controversial party, the graduate board shut down the Fox clubhouse on JFK Street until at least the start of 2016.

LEADERSHIP TURNOVER

A group of roughly 80 club alumni eventually gathered on Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge to discuss those and other concerns. According to an email a week later from the club’s board of directors, Nesbit chaired the meeting, and the club’s secretary took attendance, for which there was a quorum.

The graduate members who called the meeting, according to the message, presented three “non-binding” resolutions for attendees to discuss. The first resolution endorsed the “Path Forward” report with 99 percent of the 300 members—many voting by proxy—supporting it. Ninety-five percent of voters supported a second resolution that “called for the Graduate Board to take appropriate measures to ensure proper use of the Clubhouse and the safety of all members.”

A third resolution directly addressed the question of the club going co-ed, asking voters whether such a move should require a two-thirds vote of approval from the graduate membership. That resolution passed, according to the message, with 54 percent voting in favor, 45 percent opposed, and 1 percent abstaining.

Beyond the meeting, the divide over the question raised in the third resolution seems to have had an impact on the Fox’s leadership. Over the course of the semester, several leaders at the graduate level have departed. Beyond Sears’s replacement, Baker—the young alumnus who interfaced with undergraduates throughout the debate—also resigned.

Baker did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but in a nearly 5,000-word message to graduate members ahead of the Nov. 22 meeting, he detailed an internal history of the club’s push to go co-ed and his reasons for resigning.

Prior to undergraduates’ decision to circumvent the graduate board, Baker wrote that he had met with undergraduates and told them he supported the move to co-ed and would “advocate for them and communicate their position to the rest of the grad board and the graduate community generally.”

Arguing that controversy over the mid-November party was in fact a proxy for opposition to the undergraduates’ decision to admit women, Baker wrote that he resigned after photographs of the event found their way to Nesbit and some affiliates of the Friends of the Fox called for the club to be shut down.

“I voted in favor because I didn’t want to run the risk of further escalation of graduate aggression and misbehavior. I resigned a couple of hours later,” Baker wrote.

Since the clubhouse shut down last month, unexpectedly cancelling the planned initiation of its most recent male punch class, its future has remained unclear.

On Dec. 8, Fox graduate leaders told club affiliates that they had opened the club temporarily so that undergraduates could elect new officers, and they would likewise move ahead with initiating 24 new men at a dry event on Dec. 12. As of that message, however, the club was still closed.

“We will have more to say shortly about additional conditions for reopening the Club,” the graduate leaders wrote.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at noah.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at theodore.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.

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