Final Clubs, Episode III: The Empire Strikes Out

The big news last week was the announcement that a faculty committee issued a report recommending that the College outright ban students from joining “fraternities, sororities and similar organizations—including co-ed groups.” (Set aside for now the fact that it is more difficult to keep track of these faculty committees than of the antipopes during the Western Schism.) This escalation of the existing sanctions, which merely bar members of these organizations from certain scholarships and leadership roles in recognized student groups, is disturbing but unsurprising. One wonders why it took so long to arrive at the most obvious policy for extirpating the clubs, which have caused tooth-gnashing and garment-rending at the College for several years now.

The committee’s report is notable in several aspects, the first being its jettison of anti-discrimination as the College’s objective in dealing with the final clubs. This means that in less than four months, the College has pivoted from both of its professed goals: First, the combatting of sexual assault, and now the uprooting of sex-based discrimination.

One gets the feeling of having been the victim of an enormous ruse. The committee now thinks that the opposition to sex-based discrimination “is likely to remain inadequate to address the complexities of the socially distorting and pernicious effects of the clubs that exclude while also dominating the social scene.”

This newly found—or perhaps merely newly expressed—belief explains the committee’s absurd practice of using the term “USGSO,” i.e., Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organization, to refer to clubs that have dropped sex-based admission policies (perhaps now they are UDGSOs?). That these sex-neutral clubs are included in the recommendations makes clear that the committee’s indignation is directed at some other characteristic—perhaps their being “organized” by people other than the committee members, who are wont to moonlight as inept social engineers.

Reading on, we learn that the College’s grievance is actually that whatever benefit accrues to final club members “comes at the expense of the exclusion of the vast majority of Harvard undergraduates.” In Appendix 3 of the report, the committee adduces an anonymous letter from a student testifying that “rejection from final clubs is constant. It occurs each time someone walks down Mt. Auburn Street on a Friday night or overhears dining hall gossip about black tie dinners in secret spaces.”

There we have it: The College is solely focused on assuaging the feelings of the guy who was picked last for the dodgeball game at recess. This squeamishness regarding exclusion is even evinced by the committee’s use of “exclude” as an intransitive verb; it gives no consideration as to who is excluded or for what reason.

There are many clubs at Harvard who accept a very small number of postulants. The Crimson Key Society is notoriously exclusive. As a tour-giving group, it tends to reject people who are shy, dour, or bad at remembering long catalogs of historical information. These rejects then have to deal with the accepted students, who have the effrontery to give tours in public every day of the week. Rejection is always a disappointment, but to be an adult is to know how to move on.

Furthermore, while the letter dismisses the charge that Harvard College is more selective than any final club, this fact obstinately remains. The anonymous student writes, “The benefits of selective admissions arguably outweigh the costs. If Harvard succeeds in its mission…society benefits.” This is quite true, but there are still around 38,000 people who are not admitted, not all of whom can go instead to “Princeton or Yale,” as he remarks in the style of Marie Antoinette.

Why should he be the one chosen to be trained as a “citizen leader to build companies, lead governments, treat patients and teach students,” while the next fellow is sent off to trade school on the basis of a few measly SAT questions? The final clubs, fraternities, and sororities, when properly used, can produce refined and noble men and women ready for leadership in the world.

Now, I say “when properly used” because, as I have written before, male final club members frequently behave in ways for which they should be censured severely. But the concept of a final club need not be discredited by the poor execution of its members. The College’s goal should be to teach students to enjoy themselves in a controlled, respectful, sophisticated manner, which will not occur if it consigns them to playing bingo in Annenberg on Saturday nights.

There are other interesting tidbits in the report, notably a ridiculous footnote calling our attention to the resignation of Deval L. Patrick ’78 from the Fly Club when he wanted to run for office, as if we needed reminding that politicians are often disingenuous grandstanders. It’s quite amazing that his qualms emerged only after graduation.

I finally know why the Ringling Bros. Circus closed in May: It was getting too much competition from Harvard.

Liam M. Warner ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Adams House.

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