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Republican Legislation Could Prevent Harvard from Enforcing Sanctions

Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol building.
UPDATED: December 12, 2017 at 5:57 p.m.

Harvard could be prevented from enforcing its sanctions on members of single-gender social groups under a measure included in amended legislation proposed by Republicans in the United States House of Representatives.

The proposal, an amendment included in legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, would ban schools that have “a policy allowing for the official recognition of a single-sex student organizations” from imposing penalties on members of the groups. Because Harvard does not have a policy officially recognizing final clubs and Greek organizations, it remains unclear if the legislation—still subject to change—would apply to Harvard.

In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Melodie Jackson wrote that Harvard is "monitoring" the higher education bill, though she made no mention of the social group provision, instead pointing to proposed changes in the federal student aid program.

Representative Elise Stefanik ’06, a New York Republican and a Harvard alumna, has been pushing the amendment, according to a staffer for a Republican on the committee. Stefanik—through a spokesperson—said she has been working on this legislation with colleagues for several months.

"Congresswoman Stefanik believes all schools should respect students' right to freely associate," Stefanik's communications director Tom Flanagin wrote in an emailed statement Monday evening. "This amendment is not specific to Harvard and will protect Constitutional liberties across the country."

Flanagin wrote that, though Stefanik was not herself a member of a single-gender social group while at the College, she understands the "value of single sex organizations" and helped cofound the Women's Initiative in Leadership at the Institute of Politics while an undergraduate. A former Crimson editorial writer, Stefanik is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

The College’s social group penalties bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations on campus from student group leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships. Faust first announced the sanctions in May 2016—but the policy was immediately plunged into more than a year of controversy and turmoil as students and faculty alike protested the penalties.

Representative Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican who offered the amendment, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening. More than a dozen Republican lawmakers on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—which is reviewing the legislation—also did not immediately respond to questions about whether the legislation was targeted at or would apply toward the College’s policy.

The proposal comes less than a week after the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—voted to penalize members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations. The language of the amendment, in part, echoes the College’s chosen policy: Under the proposal, subject schools would be barred from denying letters of recommendation, team captaincies, or student organization leadership positions to members of single-gender social groups.

[Confused about the status of Harvard’s social group policy? Read an explanation here.]

The proposal also forbids subject schools for taking further “adverse action” against members of single-gender clubs, including withholding financial aid, restricting access to on-campus housing, or taking other punitive measures. Harvard’s policy does not currently include these measures.

Faust and Lee announced the Corporation’s decision to stick with the May 2016 penalties in a letter to Harvard affiliates Dec. 5.

“We cannot ignore the responsibility we bear in relationship to our students’ experience in these settings and their effect on the broader community,” Faust and Lee wrote in the letter. “The USGSOs have a very different relationship to the campus than was the case a generation ago, and it cannot be seriously disputed that the overall impact is negative.”

The House committee will meet Tuesday to mark up the bill, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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