Undergraduates are organizing a ballot referendum for the upcoming Undergraduate Council election that would call on Harvard to force final clubs to follow all anti-discrimination laws, despite that it is unclear whether administrators could legally take such a move.
In emails over House lists earlier this week, Jordan T. Weiers ’16 proposed a referendum that calls for Harvard to “reclaim administrative control over final clubs” and make them adhere to non-discrimination legislation such as the federal gender equity law Title IX.
A petition in favor of the referendum has already garnered more than 125 signatures, according to Weiers; it will need 670 to make the ballot. If the question does make the November ballot, a majority of undergraduates participate in the election, and most of those vote for the proposal, the position would become the official stance of the undergraduate student government.
Weiers, a vocal critic of final clubs who previously called for their dismantling, said he originally intended to propose a referendum calling on Harvard to liquidate the clubs’ off-campus properties and replace them with several College diversity offices—a position he described in a recent Crimson op-ed. But Weiers said that proposal was too extreme for a referendum.
Even the referendum Weiers is proposing is questionably feasible. Final clubs, the subject of mounting scrutiny from both administrators and students, are not officially recognized by Harvard; they have not been since 1984, when the all-male clubs chose to cut formal ties with the University rather than admit women. Today, they are still located off campus and operate independently from the University, so while their members do sometimes maintain relationships with College administrators, Harvard has little real control over the groups and their activities.
While some experts in higher educational law have said administrators could potentially ban undergraduates from joining final clubs, the type of administrative control over them described in the referendum—that asserted by Harvard without the groups’ cooperation—may lack legal backing.
“It raises some tricky issues of whether Harvard really has the authority to jump in the middle and dictate what they can do,” said Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law.
Weiers acknowledged that it is not clear what the University could and would do if the referendum on administrative authority over final clubs passed. He said the primary goal of his referendum petition is to increase student discourse about final clubs and the problems Weiers associates with them.
“I don’t think it would be unsuccessful if Harvard didn’t get rid of the final clubs in the next year, or in the next two years,” Weiers said. “Putting that option on people’s radars… would be a success.”
While UC referenda have traditionally sparked little change in the past, if administrators were to follow the proposal successfully, the move would represent a radical shift in their relationship with final clubs.
Administrators have long navigated a precarious relationship with the clubs, meeting with leaders privately but maintaining the party line of disaffiliation. In recent months, however, top administrators—including University President Drew G. Faust, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67—have publicly criticized the groups, even as one all-male club moved to go co-ed.
After gathering signatures and initial publicity, his referendum petition process came to a halt earlier this week, Weiers said, because of a recent Council rule change requiring that petitions first go through the UC’s website. But Weiers said he expects to gather the requisite signatures under the new rules, thereby moving the question to the ballot.
According to UC Rules Committee Chair Brett M. Biebelberg ’16, the Council does not vet potential ballot questions for feasibility.
—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.
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