Seneca To Go Gender Neutral, But Membership Could Stay All-Women

This fall, the all-female Seneca organization will formally adopt a gender neutral policy in response to administrative sanctions against single-gender social groups—but future memberships could remain all-women in practice without running afoul of the College’s penalties.

According to an email from the Seneca’s undergraduate officers to Seneca members obtained by The Crimson, Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich assured the Seneca at a May meeting that if the group removed gender requirements from its charter and bylaws, the club “could continue to operate as it always has.”

Although the Seneca will continue to only invite women to their first recruitment event of the semester, men will be allowed to attend the event without an invitation and participate in the subsequent parts of the selection process should they wish, said undergraduate co-president president Avni Nahar ’17 in an interview.

“Like Women in Business or Latinas Unidas, although men may apply, our membership can be made up wholly of women without incurring the sanctions of the administration's new policy,” Nahar and co-president Fran F. Swanson ’17 wrote in the email, according to a copy obtained by The Crimson .

“Our mission of ‘strengthening opportunities for women at Harvard" can and will remain unchanged,’ Nahar and Swanson wrote in their email to the Seneca.

A 501(c)3 group “committed to making the Harvard experience more rewarding for undergraduate women” and currently unrecognized by the College, the Seneca occupies a unique place in the Harvard social ecosystem. While its limited membership—the group is composed of around 50 women, according to its website—produces a social environment “like many all-female organizations,” the group also hosts and contributes to numerous public events geared towards women’s empowerment writ large.

Still, the Seneca’s undergraduate and graduate leadership received invitations and attended numerous meetings between administrators and the all-female and all-male final clubs last year, Nahar said. At those meetings, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana beseeched the clubs to adopt gender neutral policies.

The Seneca’s internal email has raised some eyebrows in the final club community. Attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, a longtime critic of the Harvard administration, said he has been “retained to consult” with at least one group opposing the sanctions. He called the Seneca’s agreement “a very convenient carve-out” and “a bit of realpolitik” aimed at pacifying women’s groups, who have been among the most vocal opponents of the administration’s policy.

Friedrich, however, indicated that the Seneca’s 501(c)(3) status meaningfully separates the Seneca from groups whose function is entirely social.

“While we will not comment on private conversations with individual organizations, we understand from the Seneca that they have a specific and clearly articulated purpose that qualifies them for 501c3 status,” Friedrich wrote in a statement.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane emphasized the importance that a club have “a purpose beyond a purely social one” for University recognition. Nahar said the Seneca has not decided whether to seek official University recognition. She also defended the Seneca’s plans to go gender-neutral and said the group is not receiving special treatment from the College.

“As I see it, we are completely complying with the administration’s demands by going gender neutral and anticipating to consider every applicant of any gender the same way they would consider an applicant who’s female identified,” Nahar said. “I don’t really see us as doing anything that’s different or out of line from what would be expected from other women’s organizations, and I would hope that other women’s organizations would be able to do as we have and receive the exact same treatment.”

Nahar also emphasized that her and Swanson’s email represented “an update of an in-process discussion with the administration.”

“I don’t think we’ve come to a final agreement or final conclusion” with the administration, she said. In their email, Swanson and Nahar wrote that they would meet with Khurana early this semester “to follow up.”

Future questions surrounding classification of student groups and enforcement of the University’s new policy will likely be addressed by a yet-to-be-announced implementation committee tasked with ironing out the details of the University's policy before it goes into effect in the fall of 2017.

—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at ramsey.fahs@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.

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