SOMETIME TODAY ROUGHLY 100 Harvard students will make an important decision. It will not concern classes, sports, housing, or college-sanctioned extracurriculars, yet it will profoundly affect the Harvard community. Today, after the traditional Yale game weekend close of the so-called "punching season", these young men will decide whether or not to join one of Harvard's exclusive, all-male final clubs. Although many may view the decision in practical and amoral terms, connoting little significance for their community, it is in fact a moral choice with far-reaching effects.
Upon joining a club a student is stating, however subtly or even subconsciously, that he believes in ethical egoism, in putting his needs and pleasures above those of the community. When a student joins a final club he is agreeing to accept an institution that allows women in only after dark (and even then only through the back door), an institution that has to prove its superiority through ostentatious conspicuous consumption, an institution that feeds the fires of prejudice and aristocratic elitism.
Almost everything that final clubs stand for runs counter to the foundations and purpose of Harvard University. The clubs stand for bigotry over plurality, secrecy over openness, hedonism over moderation and selfishness over community concern. The clubs divide the community, separating a group which perceives itself as a social elite from the vast majority of their fellow undergraduates.
While the clubs are spending thousands of dollars putting on elaborate parties or flying "punchees" to Atlantic City, other students are working full-time to compensate for the inadequacies of financial aid. While the clubs are organizing over-priced dinners and receptions, people are walking the streets of Cambridge hungry. While the clubs are blatantly disregarding Massachusetts alcohol laws, normal students are being forced to follow the college's strict new guidelines.
Often students join finals clubs under the pretense and false hope that they will be able to "reform from within." But how can a club that survives on conspicuous consumption, sexism and elitism be reformed? Even admitting women (an unlikely prospect at best) wouldn't improve the moral base of a system founded on privilege. To truly reform the clubs one would have to eliminate the displays of wealth and symbols of superiority which constitute the clubs' main appeal.
A SIDE FROM THE elitist principles that the clubs are founded upon, their everyday practices are equally repugnant. Every year the A.D. club has its 'bimbo party' in which the ratio of women to men is greater than three to one. The A.D.'s ex-president told the Crimson two years ago that "it's not the Harvard-girl type of dance." Other clubs have reportedly used prostitutes at initiations and other events. Still others report hazing ceremonies which are disgusting at best and hazardous at worst.
Practices aside, the issue is not whether individuals have the right to join exclusive organizations. It is simply a question of whether students are willing to stand behind the principles that Harvard is founded upon. By joining a final club, a student is taking a giant step backward, a step into a past where women were treated as inferiors and elites possessed special privileges.
It is time for all students to realize that belonging to a finals club entails more than just hanging out with a group of male friends. By accepting an offer of membership, students are accepting a status quo that runs counter to fundamental American values. It is hard to understand how these clubs can continue to exhibit their moral backwardness while the college continues to open doors on many issues. It is hard to see the justice in the clubs' harbor cruises and estate outings while other students are working to improve conditions at public housing projects or battered women shelters:
It is harder still to understand why so many of us have remained silent for so long. Why haven't President Bok and the college deans issued statements condemning the aristocratic, anti-egalitarian and anti-community values of the clubs? Why don't students express more disbelief and repugnance when their peers announce intentions to join a club? Why do some women apparently allow themselves to be brought in through back stairways or to be served chicken dinners while the men are served steak? Finally, why do club members who joined with visions of reform still belong after being unable to effect even minor changes?
Individual students can make a difference. The clubs can no longer be accepted as benign vestiges of Harvard's aristocratic past. Students should express dismay when they find out that a friend is considering joining a club. Women should stop accepting the status quo and should refuse to enter clubs which by their very existence encourage demeaning and sexist attitudes. Present members should resign from the clubs because of the clubs' immoral foundations.
Last year Harvard formally severed a few conspicuous ties to the clubs, including subsidized University steam heat and Centrex phone service. But by keeping silent on the deeper issues of the clubs' existence, Harvard's leadership and student body continue to offer substantive credibility to the clubs' claim to legitimacy. The University did something last year to end its overt support for the clubs; it's now time for students, especially the handful of men faced with today's decision, to attack from the other direction.