UPDATED: April 21, 2018 at 7:05 p.m.
An influential pro-Greek life political action committee is pushing for legislation that could threaten Harvard’s ability to enforce its social group sanctions and has added a graduate member of the Porcellian Club to its board of directors.
Harvard’s sanctions—which took effect with the Class of 2021—bar members of single-gender social groups from holding campus leadership positions, from serving as captains of varsity athletic teams, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious post-graduate fellowships.
But a bill currently working its way through Congress could imperil Harvard’s social group policy. The bill, known as the PROSPER Act, proposes an update to the Higher Education Act that could force the University to choose between implementing its sanctions and receiving millions of dollars in federal research funding.
The PAC in question—the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee—forms part of a group, the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, that retained the law firm Arnold & Porter to lobby Congress around the PROSPER Act starting in 2017, according to public filings. FGRC, which also includes fraternity and sorority umbrella organizations the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, has previously worked with Arnold & Porter on issues related to the Higher Education Act.
FSPAC's previously unreported move to join the fray means Harvard will face significant firepower on the Hill in its fight to preserve the social group sanctions. University President Drew G. Faust, referencing the PROSPER Act, has said she is “distressed” by what she called Republican lawmakers’ attempts to interfere with internal University affairs.
FSPAC added Lars E. Peterson ’68, a graduate member of the Porcellian, to its board of directors for 2017-2018, according to records available on the PAC’s website. No member of a Harvard final club previously sat on the PAC’s board of directors for at least the past five years, public filings show. Every other FSPAC board member is affiliated with a Greek organization—as has been the case for at least the past five years.
Peterson wrote in an email that he and many other alumni are “gravely concerned” about Harvard’s sanctions.
“I found the FSPAC represented a nationwide network of allies already hard at work at supporting the elected officials committed to preserving every student's right to gather with others in the organizations that best suit their needs,” he wrote.
Arnold & Porter is also overseeing lobbying efforts around the PROSPER Act for the Cambridge Coalition, a band of Harvard final clubs and Greek organizations that includes the Porcellian. The Wall Street Journal first reported in Feb. 2018 that final club members are lobbying Congress in an effort to counteract Harvard’s sanctions.
Kevin O’Neill, an Arnold & Porter lobbyist working for both the Cambridge Coalition and the FGRC, also serves as executive director for FSPAC, according to publicly available documents.
FSPAC President Marc Katz wrote in an email that the PAC condemns Harvard’s sanctions.
“The FSPAC strongly opposes Harvard’s blacklisting of students who exercise their fundamental freedom of association rights off-campus and on their own time,” Katz wrote. “That was our position before Mr. Peterson joined our board, and we appreciate the perspective Lars brings to this issue as a Harvard alumnus.”
FSPAC is the premier political arm for fraternities and sororities in the United States. The group has lobbied Congress in the past around legislation related to the ways in which colleges investigate and seek to prevent sexual assault on campus.
The group has historically had success in its lobbying efforts. Several years ago, FSPAC may have stymied legislation meant to curtail hazing.
The PAC significantly increased its donations to key supporters of the PROSPER Act this year. The group focused on legislators who have been supportive of an amendment to the act, first introduced in Dec. 2017, that makes the bill potentially pertinent to Harvard’s social group sanctions.
Representative Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican, introduced the amendment, which would ban schools that have “a policy allowing for the official recognition of single-sex student organizations” from imposing penalties on members of the groups. Because Harvard does not officially recognize single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations, the amendment does not currently apply to the University.
The Cambridge Coalition and other opponents of the sanctions hope to change that by altering the language of the amendment.
FSPAC has upped its donations to Guthrie, giving him $10,000 in 2018, ten times what the group donated to the representative in 2016, according to public lobbying records. FSPAC’s donation of $10,000 marked the highest amount the PAC gave to any individual candidate.
The PAC also increased its givings to Representative Elise Stefanik ’06, a New York Republican and a Harvard alumna; The Crimson reported in Dec. 2017 that Stefanik is pushing for the social group amendment to the PROSPER Act.
FSPAC donated $2,000 to Stefanik in 2018, twice what the group donated to her in 2016, public lobbying records show.
The PAC also gave $10,000 to Virginia Foxx—a main architect of the PROSPER Act—in 2018, according to public filings.
FSPAC has a “history” of giving to the three representatives which predates “the Harvard controversy,” Katz wrote in an email. He added Peterson was “not on the board when the PAC made spending decisions for 2017.”
“We have increased our fundraising substantially this cycle, which has given us the chance to increase our contributions to many members we have previously supported in both chambers and across both political parties,” Katz wrote.
Peterson’s addition to FSPAC’s board came around the time he made a $5,000 donation to the PAC in 2017, public filings show.
All members of FSPAC’s board of directors are required to donate to the committee, Katz wrote in his email. Katz also noted the $5,000 donation represents the maximum contribution allowed under law.
The PAC held a webinar on March 29 to update donors on efforts to lobby around the PROSPER Act. Lawyers from Arnold & Porter spoke to donors about how the PROSPER Act could affect single-sex campus social groups, according to the PAC’s website.
“Lawmakers are considering legislation that will have a tremendous impact on the future of fraternities and sororities—most notably our rights to remain single-sex organizations,” the website reads.