Harvard Marches Towards a New Sex Regime

In April 2014 President Faust created the Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention to investigate the problem of sexual assault throughout the University and to offer suggestions to combat it. Their answer? Hire a top-level administrator; institute “mandatory annual training” for students; and eliminate students’ freedom of association rights. The effectiveness of this approach in combatting sexual assault is dubious, but the expansion of administrative control over students’ private lives is clear.

In its report, released March 7, the committee called first and foremost for the creation of a full-time position in the Office of the Provost to oversee and coordinate the University’s efforts. Bureaucracy begets bureaucracy, a point that was not completely lost on the task force, which noted “it will be critical…to avoid the risk that over time this position may become bureaucratically isolated and ineffective” (emphasis ours).

In contradiction to this concern, the task force suggested a quintessentially bureaucratic list of duties for this new administrator, whose overall mission will be to coordinate and establish “institutional norms and culture” with regard to student sex, while failing to show how these duties would lower the incidence of sexual assault.

This assertion of administrative control in the moral and private lives of students is not novel. Prior administrations have already debated the value of restricting co-ed socialization through the imposition of strict parietal rules. This moralized proscription of student sex was fought over throughout the fifties and sixties and ultimately done away with in 1972 when Harvard implemented co-ed residency. Yet Harvard appears to be returning to a similar in loco parentis regime—a development indicative of the general administrative expansion across the University.

Harvard’s embrace of a “new sex bureaucracy” is made clearer by the committee’s suggestion that the sexual practices of a student body as diverse as the University’s can be defined and controlled by Massachusetts Hall. The recommendations prescribe annual mandatory “education and training,” which includes dictating the definition of “healthy sexuality,” and is designed to be “taken seriously, and internalized (emphasis ours). President Faust herself, in a statement sent to University affiliates on March 8, claimed “the task force’s report speaks to Harvard’s most foundational aspirations and commitments,” including “values-based training.”

Her affirmation that students be trained such that they internalize the administration’s values is in fact not foundational, but rather anathema to Harvard’s liberal arts tradition. Harvard claims to build citizens and leaders through the “transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” The spirit of such an education is rooted in rigorous intellectual inquiry, not the acceptance of administrative diktat. The recommendations to train students around issues as complex and personal as sex go against Harvard’s educational mission.

The committee also erred in its assessment of Final Clubs: It ignored the fact that over 75 percent of undergraduate assaults occur in Harvard’s own residential Houses, and instead blamed Harvard’s “harmful sexual culture” on the independent, all-male clubs, whose members make up 5-10 percent of the undergraduate student body. The task force suggested in an addendum report that Harvard force the all-male clubs to accept women, or ban “simultaneous membership in Final Clubs and College enrollment.”

The report acknowledged the correlation between alcohol-fueled partying and sexual assault, which we believe implies that forcing independent organizations to go co-ed would only lead to an increase in the high-risk encounters that lead to assaults. Their proposed alternative is to create a blacklist of non-complying organizations, thereby abridging the freedom of association—a bedrock principle of our nation’s constitution—for its very own students.

This latter course of action is particularly galling: Harvard appears to be moving towards a policy that would expel students simply for membership in a club, while it simultaneously fails to properly adjudicate sexual assault cases. The University is blaming an entire class of students for the condemnable and illegal conduct of a small minority—a clearly backwards approach to community safety.

Still, the report claimed that “the very structure of the Clubs—men in positions of power engaging with women on unequal and too often on very sexual terms” requires that they be abolished. This threat of the so-called patriarchy is a diversion from the unstated concern of the administration: That these clubs operate beyond Harvard’s jurisdiction. The report virtually admits as much: “Final Clubs undermine the centrality of the College’s residential spaces… [making] it harder for messages about community membership to take root—and for Harvard’s aspirations for its students to be fully realized.”

The net result of this report is to expand administrative control over students’ lives. We are witnessing a return to the College operating in loco parentis, as it attempts to both dictate social-sexual norms and limit students’ independence. Harvard bureaucrats continue to expand their numbers while also attempting to bring independent single-sex organizations, including the Final Clubs and the growing number of Greek letter organizations, under their control, if not to eliminate them entirely.

Unlike past debates about sexual mores and student liberty at the College, undergraduate students appear unperturbed by, if not supportive of, this assertion of administrative control over their private lives, while the Faculty of Arts and Sciences seems to have little influence with regards to the issue. The administration is leveraging the current political climate to achieve policy goals that will unfortunately do little to prevent sexual assault, but will certainly make Harvard more illiberal.


Harvey A. Silverglate, a 1967 graduate of the Law School, is the co-author of “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses” and the co-founder and current member of the Board of Directors of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Timothy C. Moore '12 works as a paralegal in Cambridge and was a member of a final club.

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