The Need for Nuance

Only male final clubs deserve sanctions, not all single-gender social organizations

This morning, in an email to Harvard College students, University President Drew G. Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana staked out their strongest position yet on unrecognized single-gender social organizations. Starting in 2017, members of such groups will be barred from holding team captaincies, gaining leadership positions within recognized student groups, or winning College support in fellowship applications. This is a critical step, but the administration ought to refine the policy to better reflect the nuance in campus social life.

Most significantly, we are troubled by the University’s choice to group male final clubs, female final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Though all are technically single-gender social organizations, male final clubs are remarkably different in character. The intersection of male privilege, sexual entitlement, private space, and exclusive membership that Harvard officials rightly decry is specific to those organizations. The most troubling statistic—nearly half of all female undergraduates who “participate” in the final clubs suffer incidents of sexual assaults—is a clear sign that the clubs need to be reformed.

By contrast, sororities in particular and also female final clubs provide a key social outlet for undergraduate women. Precisely because of the potentially hostile environments created by the male clubs, it is crucial that our campus have places for women to bond. With the just-announced policy, women lose an important space—one that is particularly crucial given the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Demanding the male groups become co-ed is two valuable steps forward, but sanctioning all-female social organizations is unfortunately a step back.

These meaningful differences deserve meaningfully different treatment. Indeed, we believe that the outsized influence that male final clubs exert on Harvard’s social sphere deserves still more aggressive action from the University. In the past, we have questioned the wisdom of sanctioning final club members, but faced with the continued intransigence of the male clubs, the administration must be able to back up its reformist rhetoric with action. It is clear that mere conversations—conversations that have gone on for years between the clubs and Harvard—have not resolved the deep, structural, and horrific issues of sexual assault in many of these organizations.

Encouraging them to become co-ed is an important step, as we have said many times before. We hope that when parties and punch are planned in part by women, these spaces will become more welcoming and less exclusionary without the weight of gender disparities. More fundamentally, such a move will open the doors of these historic institutions and their alumni networks to the half of Harvard undergraduates who are currently shut out simply because of their gender.

Requiring the clubs to become co-ed, however, should not be the only concession the administration demands. Clubs must also address issues of socioeconomic, racial, and geographic exclusivity, perhaps through open punch policies like the one recently instituted by the A.D. Making their financial aid programs more transparent would also help broaden the clubs’ appeal. Going co-ed is a necessary step, but it is surely not sufficient.

Khurana is right to revisit this issue to ensure the reforms are having their intended effects. These checkpoints would be excellent opportunities to make the sanctions policy more nuanced. While painting with a broad brush is tempting, a finer policy would, we hope, create a more transformative result for the Harvard community.

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