Exclusivity by Any Other Name

Few things get Harvard students riled up quite like discussions about final clubs. Every year it seems—especially in the fall—the inevitable debates come around again: whether they are good or bad, whether they are exclusive bastions of privilege left over from another time, or whether they are necessary component of Harvard’s limited social scene.

Most recently, the idea of creating more “openness” in the final clubs and similar organizations has taken center stage. Last spring, the Hasty Pudding Club held its first semi-open punch and former Crimson editorial chair Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10 wrote a much-talked-about Fifteen Minutes Scrutiny on why Harvard’s all-male clubs should move toward gender equality and go co-ed. This fall, the Bee Club, an all-female final club, announced that it would be conducting a new punch process in which invitees would be allowed to bring one friend to punch events with them, ostensibly to widen the net of potential new club members.

These moves toward what could be termed “inclusivity” are a baffling development when you consider that the idea of a social club is inherently exclusive any way you look at it. In fact, efforts to democratize the punch process or diversify the membership of social clubs are a perversion of the clubs’ purpose.

Of course, the obvious counterargument is that Harvard itself used to function like a macro version of a final club, an institution that was the preserve of rich, well-connected men of Anglo-Saxon stock. If Harvard is so much better for its increased socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, why shouldn’t social clubs take a step in that direction as well?

For one thing, Harvard has a higher purpose—education—and if it is still “exclusive” today, it is because there are vastly more qualified high school seniors who want to partake of Harvard’s impressive resources than the institution can support.

Similarly, there are plenty of other organizations at Harvard that could be termed “exclusive” in some sense. Most publications require new members to go through a “comp” process, and advanced Russian skills might make one feel more comfortable at a Russian Club meeting. However, these organizations are distinct from final clubs because their members share common interests or a common purpose.

As far as I can tell, neither male nor female final clubs are defined by any common interest—unless it’s being male or being female. If nothing else then, exclusivity is what makes final clubs what they are. And exclusivity is what separates final clubs from sororities and fraternities. No one that I know from high school has ever gone through rush without getting a bid, though it may not have been from his or her first-choice group.

This is by no means an attack on final clubs, nor is it a judgment on final clubs for being exclusive or elitist. I would merely say that final club members tend to come from similar social circles, and that allowing punches to bring friends to punch events or allowing women who already frequent male final club parties to become members doesn’t really change anything.

I do not pretend to know anything about how final clubs go about selecting new members, but I would guess that it is a mix of personality, connections, and luck that separates the invitees from the rejected. The result is that there are many great people who are in final clubs and many who aren’t. Unless the entire school gets punched into these clubs, I expect that this will always be the case. Final club members should therefore just enjoy their good fortune and stop pretending that the minor reforms they make are steps toward the advancement of civil rights.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.