Harvard’s abrupt decision this past May to sanction unrecognized single-gender social organizations beginning in 2017 has been a point of contention among not just students, but also faculty members. While University President Drew Faust deemed all unrecognized single-gender social organizations “at odds with [the College’s] deepest values” and decided to sanction their future members, some Harvard faculty have disagreed with this sweeping punishment, ultimately drafting a motion declaring that “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of the organizations they join,” which they argue will repeal the sanctions if it is passed. After months of anticipation, the motion was finally formally presented at the faculty meeting on Tuesday. Nevertheless, after impassioned argumentation on both sides and a motion by the docket committee to indefinitely postpone the vote—which would effectively kill the measure—the meeting was ultimately adjourned without the expected vote.
While we certainly acknowledge that the postponement the faculty vote is neither useful nor productive, we are primarily concerned with the way that Professor Harry Lewis, one of the most outspoken faculty members against the sanctions, framed the motion at the faculty meeting itself. His remarks, which were posted onto his personal blog, are framed in a disconcerting manner. For instance, Lewis draws a parallel between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on the basis of belonging to a club. Insinuating that these types of discrimination are at all equivalent is troubling, distasteful, and illogical; students exercise no control over their particular race, whereas students who voluntarily join single-gender social organizations under the sanctions willingly accept whatever consequences that may entail. In addition, the wording is such that we cannot support it. The language does not explicitly address the sanctions directly and makes a tautological argument that discrimination against those who discriminate is discrimination.
Additionally, Lewis and others have claimed the sanctions themselves are unconstitutional on the basis of preventing freedom of association. However, we are skeptical about the validity of this argument. Even though implementing the sanctions effectively bars students from joining unrecognized single-gender social organizations, the bar of prevention should be higher than legality. For the same reasons that Harvard administrators can and should prevent students from joining an alt-right or white supremacist club on campus, they can prevent students from joining unrecognized single-gender social organizations.
Moreover, we believe that the way the motion was presented at the faculty meeting overlooks that the sanctions affect not just male final clubs, but all unrecognized single-gender social organizations. While Professor Lewis addresses the idea that women who belong to these unrecognized social organizations would be punished most strongly by the sanctions, he does not offer enough detail regarding the nuances between unrecognized male and female social organizations.
In the past, we emphasized that the significant differences between male and female unrecognized social groups merit different treatment, and that a blanket punishment like the sanctions as they currently exist is not the best solution. We still believe this detail is an important one that should be seriously considered in the voting decision. However, despite the clear differences, we recognize that female final clubs and even sororities have their own flaws and problems of exclusivity that can be improved.While the sanctions most immediately impact the social lives of undergraduates beginning with the Class of 2021, it is clear that faculty have taken a multitude of opinions regarding them as well. Likewise, the nature of the pro-motion argument—despite its vehement supporters—is as flawed as the sweeping nature of the original sanctions themselves. Rather than seek out the lesser of two evils, the faculty should vote directly on whether to repeal the proposed sanctions. Most of all, we hope that faculty members’ opinions are not swayed by misleading rhetoric, and ultimately, that Harvard administrators will respect and consider the opinions of its faculty members as they continue to move forward with the implementation of this new policy.