Two years into his deanship, Rakesh Khurana’s debut to the College has been marked by turbulence. Responding to protests about race relations, sexual assault, and social life on campus, Khurana has been confronted with many controversies outside of the classroom.
Just months into office, Khurana sat on the bare shoulders of a student at a primal scream protest, looking to mediate a conflict between protesters and nude runners. Come that spring, he again waded into undergraduate controversy over a lewd party invitation from a final club. This year, as the federal government continued to investigate the College’s Title IX compliance, he responded with shock and a promise to fight the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.
Continually framing his goal at the helm of the College around a singular mission, Khurana says he divides his priorities into three categories: personal, intellectual, and social “transformation.”
During his deanship, however, many of his most public, and controversial, comments have focused on undergraduate social life in particular. Earlier this month, after several semesters of closed-door meetings with the College’s unrecognized final clubs, Khurana issued what some have called his most controversial policy to date. Breaking a decades-long practice of restrained administrative oversight of the clubs, University President Drew G. Faust accepted recommendations from Khurana that will bar members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations from leadership positions in recognized student groups and endorsements for top fellowships.
An academic by trade, Khurana has repeatedly denied that his top priority is undergraduate social life. By his own estimate, he spends about 80 percent of his time on academics.
But even as he oversees the rollout of the College’s honor code and overhaul of the General Education program—two initiatives planned before his deanship—Khurana faces the challenge of defending it as one geared towards undergraduate education.
Khurana has argued that national media outlets, which have sped to cover his pressure on single gender organizations, mischaracterize and blur his true priorities. But within the College, Khurana faces his own share of critics.
Many student leaders have praised the dean for his involvement in undergraduate social life, but have largely rebuked his unprecedented policy on final clubs. Some—including a previous Dean of the College—have called on Khurana to temper his focus on social life and re-balance the deanship around academics.
Through his campus presence and initiatives to revitalize student social life, Khurana is known among students as an administrator who puts student life at the top of his agenda.
“We are choosing the harder path of inventing something new and reimaging new types of organizations, new types of associational life, new types of environments,” he said this month.
As a sociologist at Harvard Business School, Khurana studies organizational behavior and management theory, two fields he has tried to incorporate in his approach to his deanship.
Since starting his first semester as dean in fall 2014, Khurana has been outspoken about gender discrimination, social exclusion, and racism on campus, demonstrating a desire to reshape undergraduate social life. In addition to establishing sanctions against social groups outside of Harvard’s gates, Khurana has looked to bolster House life and College-sanctioned events. Over the past two years, his office has increased funding to the Office of Student Life—the administrative department charged with organizing and funding a significant portion of social activities—by 73 percent. According to Khurana, the College has already budgeted another 15 percent increase in resources for the upcoming academic year.
“I see my role as more of trying to be WD-40, to help move things along where things can sometimes get stuck,” Khurana said.
Also high on Khurana’s agenda is tackling sexual assault on Harvard’s campus. In September, the University released the results of a sexual assault climate survey revealing that 31 percent of senior undergraduate females at Harvard experienced unwelcome sexual contact while at the College.
In response, a University-wide task force issued a set of recommendations aimed at tackling sexual assault. The recommendations, released in March, disproportionately emphasized the College and suggested the administration reconsider its alcohol policy, mandate annual trainings for alcohol consumption and “health sexuality,” and decrease the number of access points into the Houses. The report also sharply criticized the historically male final clubs for possessing “deeply misogynistic attitudes.” About two months later, Khurana and Faust announced their sweeping sanctions of the groups.
In announcing the new sanctions, Khurana compared his policy to the integration of all-women’s Radcliffe College, arguing both were steps in preventing discrimination. “Today, we have reached another crossroads, and it is time to move Harvard College forward by fostering a campus culture that respects the dignity and rights of all our students,” he wrote.
Given Khurana’s extensive social policies, many students have interpreted his leadership as one more publicly focused on students’ social lives rather than academics.
“I see him much more involved in social life,” Leah U. Rosen ’19, a former board member of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, said. “I’ve heard him speak much more about student life than academics.”
Drisana M. Mosaphir ’17, an organizer for anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, agreed.
“I see him much more in touch with students on social issues,” she said.
Khurana’s colleagues said the dean aims to “build a strong social fabric” of undergraduate life. “He’s setting the culture,” Jasmine M. Waddell, the freshman resident dean for Elm Yard, said. “I think that the transformations that he set out when he first started have evolved and developed and been given legs and things to hold onto.”
‘Breaking Dangerous New Ground’
Although Khurana’s focus on providing safe social venues for undergraduates is not unique, some former administrators and students say his stance towards regulating the College’s unrecognized final clubs is unprecedented.
Like former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, Khurana has sought to introduce new social spaces at Harvard and emphasized safe party practices. Whereas Epps advocated building a barn-like structure for students to host parties, Khurana, as a Faculty Dean and administrator, has repurposed Cabot’s junior common room into a similarly functioning space. Also similar to Epps, who wrote public letters criticizing the College’s final clubs, Khurana has decried the historically single-gender groups as antithetical to the College’s core values.
But unlike Epps and former College administrators, Khurana has sought to regulate the final clubs through sanctions, a strategy that some say is an overextension of the dean’s office into students’ private lives. In the wake of that policy announcement, hundreds of students—primarily undergraduates in female social organizations— rallied against the sanctions in front of Massachusetts Hall and took to social media, calling on the College to reconsider its oversight of student groups.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, Dean of the College from 1995 until 2003, recently criticized Khurana’s sanctions of single-gender social groups and the dean’s involvement in student social life. In a private letter, Lewis applauded Khurana’s broad efforts to reign in the groups, but castigated what he characterized as an unprecedented and damaging policy.
“Students’ membership in organizations is their own business, not the College’s,” Lewis wrote, adding that the policy enforced a new requirement for students to adhere to a purported mission of non-discrimination and co-education.
“It seems to me that you are breaking dangerous new ground in articulating this standard and in interpreting it to disqualify students from captaincies and leadership positions,” Lewis wrote to Khurana. Lewis declined to comment for this story.
Khurana, responding to the letter, wrote in a statement that he was “appreciative” of Lewis’s comments and would share his message with a committee tasked with overseeing the final club policy implementation.
Lewis’s letter closely echoes his long-attributed motto that administrators avoid serving as the “cruise directors” of undergraduate social life.
Similarly, attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, a vocal critic of the administrative board—the College’s disciplinary body—said Khurana’s efforts reflect a broader trend in higher education of administrators exercising “increasing bureaucratic control” over the private lives of undergraduates. Still, Khurana, Silverglate argued, stands out among other administrators who “micromanage” student life.
“Intruding into private activity on private property in the course of private social legal arrangements that previously would have been unthinkable of Harvard social life control—that’s what’s new,” Silverglate said. “It’s truly radical and disturbing to anyone that believes in liberty.”
For former University President Lawrence H. Summers, the University’s recent initiatives on social life and cultural sensitivity could detract from a focus on academics.
“I think as a University we should be concentrating on academic excellence rather than making broad statements of values—whether it is through placemats in our dining halls or kindness pledges or sanctions on student association,” Summers said.
‘Academics Should Be the Foreground’
Despite the pressure he has placed on the College’s final clubs, Khurana fervently resists the perception that social life is at the top of his agenda.
“The biggest focus this year is on the academics of the College, to make sure that academics should be the foreground of the Harvard College experience,” Khurana said.
According to Khurana, 80 percent of his time is dedicated to work related to academics, spending the rest of his time on other areas including social life.
Pointing to the increase in number of freshman seminars, introduction of a paid meal program for students and faculty, and overhaul of the College’s beleaguered general education program, Khurana said administrators have already implemented a host of academic-focused reforms.
One such endeavor includes the creation of the Honor Council, the governing body composed of College administrators and undergraduates that enforces the honor code and adjudicates cheating cases. Khurana, who serves as the chair of the Honor Council, has been “instrumental” in the honor code’s roll out, said Freshman Resident Dean for Ivy Yard Michael C. Ranen.
In administrators’ minds, although Khurana is often seen in the context of social life, he has focused just as much on academic matters.
“I don’t think that the social is any more important to him than the other two,” interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said, referencing the College’s three-part mission to provide an intellectual, social, and personal “transformation.” “It may just be the circumstances that led him to the social piece, but I don’t think that’s a greater importance than the other two.”
“Dean Khurana, like previous deans of Harvard College, have all worked tirelessly to ensure that students are receiving an intellectually transformative education,” Associate Dean of the College Joan Rouse wrote in an emailed statement.
Outside of his office, however, Khurana’s sanctions against final clubs have drawn the attention of the national media, outlets the Dean argued contribute to a mischaracterization of his priorities.
“I think that’s partly due to where people pay public attention to, by news accounts, partly fermented by what people have different interests in,” he said in a recent interview.
When asked if he considered his two-year tenure as a departure from previous deans, Khurana framed no conclusions.
“I don’t know enough about the predecessor deans to make any judgement that would be informed,” he said. “I see myself as part of a long thread of notions of making Harvard College a standard in a liberal arts and sciences education.”
—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.
—Staff writer Ignacio Sabate can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ignacio_sabate.