Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences sparred over a motion opposing the College’s historic sanctions of unrecognized single-gender social organizations Tuesday afternoon, filling all of the seats in the meeting hall and crowding by the doors.
Former Dean of the College and computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 introduced the motion for discussion at the meeting, arguing that the College was “creating a blacklist” by penalizing students who choose to join the unrecognized single-gender social clubs. Lewis also requested that a potential December vote on the motion be done by paper ballot, not by the customary verbal “yea” or “nay.”
“The policy teaches our students, who watch everything we do, bad lessons,” Lewis, one of 12 original signatories of the motion, said. “It is illiberal. It teaches students that it is okay to sacrifice basic individual freedoms in pursuit of large but only vaguely related social goals.”
Announced in May, the College’s policy—which, starting with the Class of 2021, will prohibit members of those organizations from student leadership positions and College endorsement for top fellowships—has been met with mixed reactions. While many Harvard affiliates, including coaches, professors, and members of the Harvard Corporation have expressed their support for the policy, hundreds of students, faculty, and former administrators have publicly criticized the decision.
Lewis believes if the motion is passed by a Faculty vote, it would strike down the sanctions. But administrators have remained silent on whether the faculty motion would override them.
At Tuesday’s meeting, University President Drew G. Faust did not specifically answer a question from Classics professor Richard F. Thomas about the power of the motion.
“There has been some uncertainty about whether the Faculty’s vote on this motion, if affirmative, would decide the matter,” Thomas said. “Could I ask you to reassure us that you share my understanding of the Faculty’s jurisdiction in this case?”
Faust declined to answer yes or no, instead encouraging faculty to consider closely “the urgency of the problem” of the single-gender organizations. The earliest date at which the motion could go to vote is at the next full Faculty meeting in December.
“Your question uses the words authority and jurisdiction,” Faust responded to Thomas. “I find it more helpful to think of our work together as rooted in notions of shared governance.”
In an interview earlier Tuesday, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith also did not provide a definitive answer on whether the motion could strike down the policy, instead saying he wanted the Faculty to discuss the issues further.
“Through that discussion we will come to a decision of how to move forward,” Smith said.
The Faculty Council declined to vote on the motion in its last meeting. David L. Howell, a Faculty Council member and Japanese history professor, later said the body postponed a decision because the motion does not currently reference the single-gender social organization policy specifically.
At the meeting, Faust said she endorsed the policy in May because she “did not believe the University and its leadership—its President, its FAS and College deans—can any longer avoid the issues raised by single-gender social organizations for the inclusivity and safety of our campus community, as well as for equal access and opportunity for our students.”
After Lewis delivered his statement, several professors, as well as the president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council, took to the floor to voice their views on the College’s policy and the motion.
Defending the sanctions, Human and Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman ’86 said the motion was redundant to existing nondiscrimination policies in the Harvard College handbook.
If the motion passes, Lieberman said, “The final clubs, fraternities and sororities will go unchecked, we will face a deluge of unrecognized Greek organizations that will continue to erode our House system, and we will find our campus riven by more, not less, discrimination.”
“In short, this motion sounds good on the surface but it will paradoxically harm rather than help us to promote inclusion and fight discrimination,” he concluded.
Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, a history professor, agreed, and said she sees the sanctions as a step towards a more modern and inclusive Harvard, contrasting the overwhelming white and male portraits in the Faculty Room with the more diverse gathering of faculty present.
But Eric M. Nelson ’99, a government professor, delivered a scathing condemnation of the sanctions, contending that the policy is a threat to academic freedom and an “alarming recharacterization of the relationship between the College and its students.”
“The proposed sanctions represent, without question, the most significant change in the disciplinary posture of the College to be announced in decades—far more significant, for example, than the honor code that we recently implemented by Faculty legislation. And yet this matter was never brought to the Faculty,” he said.
After months of withholding their public opinion on the sanctions, UC president and vice president Shaiba Rather ’17 and Daniel V. Banks ’17 expressed their support for the policy in a joint speech, which drew Faculty applause.
Banks said that he and Rather “view this policy as an opportunity for a new chapter in Harvard’s history.”
“To claim that these institutions are not part of the Harvard community is to hide history and fact behind technicality,” said Banks, referring to the school’s final clubs and Greek organizations. “For students, this is not a political or philosophical debate, this is our experience at Harvard. It is deeply personal.”
History professor Andrew D. Gordon ’74 came away from the meeting unimpressed with both the policy and the motion opposing it.
“To me the problem with the policy is what it’s fundamentally aiming at is sexual abuse, aggression, harassment, and yet it’s somewhat of a blunt instrument,” Gordon said. “I also feel immense frustration at the motion because of the way it’s framed without reference to what’s actually in the policy.”
“So frankly, I’m not in support of the motion, but I’m not thrilled with the policy either,” Gordon said.
Though some professors said after the meeting that the discussion was productive, others expressed disappointment that it was cut short to move on to other business. History professor Michael McCormick called discussion of the motion “stimulating but rather short.”
“Clearly there were many people who wished to speak but did not have the possibility to do so,” McCormick said.
—Andrew M. Duehren, Matthew J. Leifer, Gabriela J. Siegal, Brian P. Yu, and Phelan Yu contributed reporting.
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