Usually the issue of final clubs comes up among blockmates over Saturday or Sunday brunch. In contrast, last Friday, an initiative that opposes the current state of final clubs organized an open community discussion on the topic, with many different stakeholders present—from students who strongly dislike final clubs to students who are in and attend them. Open, honest debate on final clubs is desperately needed at Harvard, and the new final club initiative is a worthwhile endeavor because of its emphasis on this type of conversation. The College should consider sponsoring a similar educational dialogue on final clubs for freshman.
Just because final clubs are not officially recognized by Harvard does not mean that the College can functionally ignore their presence or their effects on students. One of the College’s responsibilities is to provide stewardship for its students, and final clubs have the potential to put undergraduates at risk by nature of the type of social space they constitute. Firstly, the clubs are associated with a history of complaints of sexual harassment. Massive amounts of underage drinking take place at the clubs, and attendees often arrive intoxicated and proceed to continue drinking in a male-dominated social space. Although not all final club parties necessarily end in a hospitalization or sexual assault—and such events occur elsewhere on campus as well—final clubs serve as breeding grounds for such harm.
In addition, even though there are gay members of final clubs, the type of social activity that is present and unofficially sanctioned at these clubs is overwhelmingly heterosexual, further marginalizing a segment of the student body. Moreover, the culture of exclusivity promoted by final clubs and the punch process is problematic. College administrators should not hide behind the fact that they are not legally liable for the clubs' activities; in reality, final clubs are a salient issue in the social lives of undergraduates.
Therefore, the College should sponsor a dialogue addressing the clubs’ history of allegations of sexual harassment and rape, their heteronormativity, and their culture of exclusivity. This dialogue should occur early in the freshman experience, in order to educate students as early as possible about the issues they will soon confront. Freshmen are already oriented on everything from affirmative action at Harvard to finding Emerson Hall, and a final club discussion would be a natural addition to the freshman introductory activities. It is disingenuous to warn students—as is currently done—of the dangers of alcohol, sexual harassment, and other social issues without mentioning at all how these factors apply, in the Harvard context, to final clubs. In particular, young Harvard women should not have to rely on an unofficial network of older friends to season them as to how to party safely in these spaces; not everyone is lucky enough to have such a mentor.
In order for this dialogue to be more than just an administrative referendum on final clubs, final club members should be asked to participate. The April 2009 discussion on social spaces sponsored by the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response is a good point of reference. It featured representatives from The Advocate, the Dudley Co-op, The Harvard Crimson, the Fox, and the Spee, and brought important issues to light in a constructive and respectful manner.
We can think of several concrete ways in which this dialogue might occur. A final club discussion could be incorporated into the mandatory alcohol-education session during freshmen orientation, or it could be a non-mandatory panel discussion during freshmen week. Regardless of the specifics, a College-sponsored final club forum is long overdue.