At Harvard, we believe that an essential component of a college education is what students learn from one another in face to face encounters with people who are different from themselves. We want our students to stretch beyond the familiar to question what they have taken for granted, to revisit their assumptions, to confront the unknown, to expand their world of experience and understanding. This happens in the classroom, to be sure. But our commitment to residential education, even or perhaps especially in a digital age, arises from the understanding that less structured, often serendipitous, interactions—in corridors and dining halls, in late-night conversations—make critical contributions to intellectual and personal growth.
This belief in students’ capacity to teach and to learn from one another led to the creation of Harvard’s House system. Today’s students live in an environment likely more diverse than any they have previously known. We seek to bring people together across lines of identity and experience believing they can be enriched, rather than divided, by their differences. This is a bold commitment, especially now in a moment of social fracture and conflict. But it has rarely mattered more. In a time of polarization, we seek to model the ideals and possibilities of inclusion.
The policy on single-gender social organizations announced in the spring of 2016 grew out of a recognition that the significant and growing influence of final clubs, fraternities, and sororities on Harvard’s campus threatened these fundamental values and purposes. These discriminatory and exclusionary organizations are at odds with the kind of educational experience and community our admissions processes, our House system, and our curriculum are designed to achieve. Although a succession of deans has struggled to address the many issues arising from the resulting social scene, and although College Visiting Committees have expressed increasing concern, none of the steps taken have proved effective in defending the ideals of inclusion against the incursions of discrimination and exclusion in student life. As the SGSOs have grown increasingly prominent and influential, the College has, in direct contravention of our institutional intentions, slowly been evolving into a fraternity/sorority campus. As a result, there exists a shadow social environment at the College, one that is seemingly outside its control or oversight but that nevertheless significantly—and, for too many, negatively—shapes students’ educational experience.
Several other developments at Harvard have reinforced the need to recommit ourselves to our ideal of an education rooted in the lived experience of diversity. Changes in our financial aid policy introduced a broader range of difference into our student body—in socioeconomic terms as Harvard became more affordable, but in other dimensions of race, ethnicity, religion, and geographic origins as well. These changes focused attention on the need not simply to admit students from diverse backgrounds but to ensure their full membership in Harvard student life. At the same time, a lawsuit that could ultimately be decided in the highest courts of the land has challenged our admissions policies and educational philosophy by, among other things, seeking to overturn longstanding Supreme Court precedent affirming the legality of our commitment to student body diversity. In February 2016, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences developed and unanimously endorsed a compelling statement of these ideals—ideals that are profoundly incompatible with the gender exclusionary practices of the SGSOs.
It is a time when we must act affirmatively to preserve our long held commitments and values, values which are not consistent with a community dominated by organizations that divide students into groups of likeminded individuals created out of rules and processes of discrimination and exclusion. More than three decades have passed since Harvard administrators hoped that denying SGSOs official College recognition would succeed in curtailing their activities and influence. They have instead grown only more numerous and more influential, enrolling an ever larger portion of the student body. To insist that the College can have no responsibility or authority over the structure of the environment in which students live and learn is to abandon the ideals of community we have long espoused. Confronted with strikingly similar organizations, Princeton, Yale, and others found the institutional will to act. It is past time for us to do the same. We must not abdicate our obligation to take the next step in the long, historic, and ongoing movement toward ensuring that all students are full citizens of our University, that none are denied its opportunities solely because of accident of birth. We must not abandon our ideal of the educational and humane power of diversity.
Drew G. Faust is the President of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History.