The Once and Future Harvard College: From Exclusion to Equality

This Tuesday, Oct. 4, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is scheduled to debate the new restrictions on members of single-gender “unrecognized organizations,” including final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Since Dean Khurana announced the new policy last spring, it has drawn fire from critics who have argued that it is “over-reaching,” and imposes upon our students a "values test." As a result, a group of FAS faculty has proposed a motion that seeks to overturn the new regulations of these private, “unaffiliated” clubs. Professor Harry Lewis, a noted and outspoken critic of the new rules, reported three weeks ago that he had asked his CS 121 students to hum if they supported the rules; he then asked those who opposed the rules to hum. According to Professor Lewis, in this way he anonymously determined that the consensus was “overwhelmingly negative.”

Regardless of one’s point of view regarding the new restrictions on members of single-sex clubs, there is little debate that these “unrecognized” final clubs, sororities, and fraternities have a deleterious effect on College social life. Exclusionary by design, they undermine essential values that Harvard has sought to instantiate over at least the last half century. During this period, Harvard College evolved from a men’s school into a fully co-educational institution, committed to equality and merit in student admissions, faculty appointments, and staff hiring. These essential changes came slowly, but they are undoubtedly among the most important shifts in higher education writ-large, and Harvard specifically, over its history.

My colleagues who have sponsored the motion have expressed serious concerns that these policies, which would prohibit students who are members of the clubs from holding leadership positions and from securing the dean’s support for prestigious fellowships, would unduly compromise rights to “freedom of association;” and that the College has no business creating rules and attempting to influence these private, unrecognized clubs. This, it is worth noting, was an argument widely used by white-only and other discriminatory clubs and institutions during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

What does it mean that the clubs are “unrecognized” or “unaffiliated?” If they were “affiliated” with the College, their admissions practices and discriminatory policies would clearly be prohibited. So the arguments against the new rules center on the clubs’ “independence” as private “unrecognized” organizations. But as those of us who study and work in the College know, the clubs are far from independent. The clubs are related to the College in many ways and they shape its culture. In this respect, they create harms for members of our community that invite scrutiny and regulation.

The new rules, rather than “imposing values” as opponents have claimed, seek to affirm core consensual values that motivate our work and unify our community. First, the social clubs undermine the essential tenets that have shaped our commitments to diversity, equality, and inclusion. These values are fundamental to our institutional identity and to how we seek to build a community in the College. Second, as the FAS and University reports on sexual assault and harassment over the last year have documented, the clubs have contributed to an environment that puts our students at risk of serious harm and, in some instances, criminal behavior. A wide range of interventions will be required to address comprehensively the problems of sexual harassment and violence, but we can no longer permit the “unaffiliated” or “unrecognized” status of these clubs to constrict the ability of the College to assert modest restrictions on their members. These single-gender clubs are “of” if not “in” Harvard College. Too much is at stake for the University and the values that we prize.

Two decades ago the College changed its rules about blocking and House affiliation, recognizing that there were fundamental issues about diversity in residential college life that could be addressed at least partially through “randomizing” the process of house assignment. Not surprisingly, there was considerable opposition to the policy. Critics voiced concern that the character of House life would be disrupted and the cultural traditions of the Houses eroded. Those of us who observed the introduction of this policy knew that it would take time to adjust, but hoped in the long run that this important change would serve the wider interests of our community. Professor Lewis, then Dean of the College, endorsed the goal of reaching gender-equality in the houses, irrespective of randomization. He noted at the time, “there was educational merit for all students in living in the same community with other talented students with different backgrounds and interests.”

It seems ironic that the opponents of the new rules express such serious apprehension that the policy will lead to the potential for discriminatory policies along a “slippery slope” with a “frightening prospect,” when the clubs insist on maintaining clearly discriminatory policies that promote material harms. These fears of hypothetical future abuses of administrative authority promote a status quo of exclusion and privilege that reflects Harvard’s past, not its future. If we had relied on such anxieties during the decades of advocacy for civil rights and gender equality, we would not have made the progress we have in the promotion of tolerance, diversity, and egalitarianism that increasingly characterize Harvard today and make it a better place to study, to work, and to live.


Allan M. Brandt is the Amalie Moses Kass Professor the History of Medicine and Professor of the History of Science, and the former Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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