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Final Clubs and the Freedom of Association

By Bartle Bull

The attempt to shut down Harvard's final clubs is an exercise in intolerance.

Several grounds have been advanced by critics as the purported basis for this effort: Most final clubs do not admit women as members, some have had inappropriate sexual incidents, some have tolerated excessive drinking, and, the latest claim, that some clubs indulge in “careerism,” giving their members an advantage in securing post-graduate jobs and launching careers.

Harvard celebrates scores of undergraduate institutions that exclude—whether implicitly through self-selection of interests, or explicitly through formal comps—most undergraduates from membership: women's clubs, gay and lesbian and transgender societies, Hillel House and Muslim organizations, every major athletic team, and The Harvard Crimson itself, of which I was on the editorial board for three years. Many of these institutions, especially sports teams, do indeed have graduate connections that help young graduates find jobs, though in six years as a member of the A.D. Club while at college and law school, I never heard of a club graduate helping an undergraduate find a job. Never. Of course that was many years ago. But in the fifty-five years since I graduated, I have never helped any club member find a job, nor have I ever been asked to do so, though I still occasionally attend Club dinners, where last year I was impressed again by the character and diversity of the undergraduate members. The A.D. has for years had a strict policy forbidding career assistance. As a writer and former publisher of The Village Voice, I know that few Harvard organizations are more career-enhancing than The Crimson.

True, most final clubs do not admit women members. That is an ongoing decision of the undergraduate members. Alcohol, drug, and sexual conduct issues are no more common at the clubs than they are outside the clubs. Indeed, certainly at the A.D. Club, and partly due to the College's ultra-critical attitude towards the clubs, parietal conduct rules are far more strictly enforced than they are elsewhere at Harvard.

Why, then, are bien pensant (old French for 'politically correct') critics after the clubs? Is it social resentment and politically correct bias, or are other factors at work? Is "fairness" the cover for this intolerance? Is it fair that the basketball teams exclude shorter women and men?

The core reason that the clubs exist and endure is that they are celebrations of friendship. The basic thing that is done at the clubs is that people gather there to have a few meals a week together with their friends. That is the basis of the clubs. When I was at Law School in the sixties, a law professor asked me why every day I walked across Cambridge to have lunch at the A.D. "The conversation is better," I replied. And it was. It was not all about finding jobs on Wall Street.

The legal foundation of the clubs is the core constitutional principle of freedom of association. In 1958, in NAACP v. Alabama, a cornerstone of many civil rights and minority group advances of the modern era, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the First & 14th Amendments (freedom of speech & equal protection under the law) as the grounds for "freedom of association."

The final clubs have always had members who led the truly progressive movements of their times, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, and FDR.

Lest my advocacy be dismissed as the rant of an aging right-winger, permit me to say that while on The Crimson I successfully fought to have the first woman elected to the editorial pages of the paper, that I served (and was arrested) as a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi in 1966 and later campaigned there for Charles Evers for governor, that I was Robert Kennedy's New York State campaign manager in 1968, was awarded a civil rights medal by Senator Edward Kennedy in 2003, and in 2010 I went to Afghanistan as a director of The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women to recruit young women for American colleges (where I was helicoptered into a Forward Operating Base near Kandahar, whence I went on three foot patrols to girls' schools).

Why should Harvard College not respect freedom of choice and association? What has happened to our sense of fairness and tolerance? Why prevent friends from eating their meals together? Perhaps Harvard, and the Crimson, should stand up to the tyrannies of the left today, as it stood up to the tyrannies of the right during the days of Joe McCarthy.

Bartle Bull '60, Harvard Law School '64, is a writer and a former civil rights attorney.

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