UPDATED: April 18, 2016, 12:37 a.m.
Amherst College set off a firestorm in May 2014 when it announced that it would ban students from joining fraternities and sororities and punish those who do. “Prohibiting student participation in off-campus organizations is an unprecedented incursion on the liberties of Amherst College students,” said a referendum supported by 70 percent of students, launching a campus-wide and national conversation about Amherst’s right to impose such a ban that’s stayed in place throughout the academic year.
Ninety miles eastward, Harvard seems to be tumbling down a similar path as the discourse around final clubs grows more bellicose. Last week, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana floated the possibility of barring undergraduate members of final clubs from holding leadership positions like team captaincies and from receiving fellowships. The idea of sanctions, suggested during a tense meeting with graduate and undergraduate leaders of final clubs, was speculative. But even so, it gives reason to worry about the College’s creeping encroachment on student life.
We have long condemned final clubs for cultivating such a toxic campus social environment. But sanctions elicit immediate questions of practicality. How the College would go about identifying students in final clubs is anyone’s guess. So is the question of whether the sanctions would be extended to other fraternity-like organizations. If so, still unclear would be the definition of a fraternity-like organization, especially as other groups would begin to fill the social void on campus in the wake of sanctions.
But beyond issues of feasibility, sanctions would mark a severe invasion of students’ privacy. Granted, there is no legal right to attend Harvard, so few would question the legality of sanctions on final club members. But by the same token, few would question basic liberties on campus, such as privacy within one’s own dorm room. The University doesn’t police which extracurricular organizations students join, nor the political causes they take on because students have the right to organization outside of the College. While we might not join the Porcellian Club graduate board president, who recently resigned in light of his comments about sexual assault, in crying “McCarthyism,” it is a worrying path forward.
We agree with proponents of sanctions who suggest that the final clubs are detrimental to campus life. The March report of the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention, which pilloried final clubs, emphasized that 47 percent of female seniors "participating in the final clubs" reported “experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.”
To impose sanctions on club members would be to treat the institutions themselves as the sole roots of sexual assault. It would also partly absolve non-final club members from the effort to combat the issue on campus. In reality, sexual assault is a product of people, not places. And attempting to shut down final clubs through sanctions—without acknowledging that the same social scene could migrate to other forums and without recognizing that a revolution of culture is what’s needed—is to largely sidestep the issue of sexual assault that’s at the heart of the final club debate.