Pajama parties are not a typical topic of discussion for the Dean of Harvard College. But earlier this month, when one of Harvard’s all-male final clubs circulated a party invitation that prompted a fury of criticism from women on campus, Rakesh Khurana reacted with a very public response.
In an email to all undergraduates, Khurana did not hide his distaste for the invitation, which advertised a Spee Club party and linked to a YouTube video featuring multiple clips of women wearing underwear. He characterized it as “offensive, crude, and sexist” and argued that it ran “counter to the values we hold as a community.”
Khurana’s email is just one example of how the College’s top administrator has engaged with unrecognized social clubs in his first few months on the job: more openly and more pointedly than administrators have in recent years, according to some students.
“The current administration has been more vocal than we’ve seen in the past,” said Undergraduate Council President Ava Nasrollahzadeh ’16, who is a member of the all-female Bee Club.
“Previously, this relationship was probably a hush-hush topic,” added UC Vice President Dhruv P. Goyal ’16, who is a member of Harvard’s chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity.
Social clubs are no small part of the social scene at Harvard, which for decades has played host to all-male final clubs and now includes female equivalents and burgeoning Greek life. The trend is only growing as a new fraternity establishes its presence on campus and sororities draw more interest among students.
The College does not recognize these single-gender social groups. Still, although on paper the relationship between most social clubs and Harvard is officially estranged, administrators in practice maintain a relationship with these groups behind the scenes. They meet with club affiliates over meals and in clubhouses and offer to train their members in alcohol safety and sexual assault prevention. Administrators keep tabs on club leadership, but their refusal to recognize these groups leaves them with little control beyond that.
Khurana is taking on a new approach to dealing with these groups. He has publicly voiced skepticism of many social clubs’ single-gendered model and, some students and club affiliates say, complicated what is already a fragile relationship between unrecognized social organizations and the College. Khurana says he wants to encourage undergraduates to rethink the ways in which their social organizations may be exclusive, but some worry that the College's stance on final clubs and similar groups is at best futile and at worst counterproductive.
Social clubs at Harvard are far from new. With centuries-old histories at the College, they are embedded in its history—and are even chronicled in University archives. Harvard’s eight all-male final clubs have churned out famous writers, politicians, and even Harvard presidents themselves, whereas some of the younger female final clubs, sororities, and fraternities have secured real estate in Cambridge and are working to institutionalize their presence here. A few decades ago, the College may have recognized any one of these groups.
But in 1984, the University and its all-male final clubs officially cut ties. By this time, Harvard had been co-educational for more than a decade, and administrators increasingly worried about a social scene dominated by all-male groups. They gave the final clubs an ultimatum: Admit women, or lose the privileges that come with official recognition.
The final clubs chose to cut the cord, but the divorced institutions still maintained a relationship. Even after 1984, the administration still tried to exert some influence over the clubs. Archie C. Epps III, the College’s dean of students from 1971 to 1999, spoke with club graduate boards and their students members. Epps wrote an open letter to the College describing alleged happenings at the clubs, including public nudity and “lewd sexual acts” by hired women at a dinner. He also offered the clubs advice, which ranged from hiring bartenders to, in typical party line, electing female members.
More than three decades later, the College still does not recognize or maintain formal relationships with final clubs, nor fraternities and sororities, unlike other schools in the Ivy League such as Cornell and Dartmouth.
Student organizations that the Office of Student Life recognizes today enjoy many privileges. Unrecognized groups cannot publicize or poster for events on sandwich boards on campus, reserve campus rooms or space, or use College space for storage. They also may not send messages over House email lists, list their memberships in the yearbook, or apply for University funding, according to a memo that OSL administrators sent to presidents of final clubs, fraternities, sororities and other unrecognized social clubs last year that was shared with The Crimson.
It is unlikely that the College will ever recognize these groups, at least in their current form, according to administrators, who claim that their values do not align.
“They continue to be unrecognized because they don't adhere to our values as a College,” Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde said.
Khurana claims these unrecognized groups are exclusive. “The College continues to support the idea that…single-gendered organizations are not appropriate for the College,” Khurana said.
But despite the official party line of non-recognition, administrators in recent years have engaged with final clubs and other unrecognized social groups in private, both through closed-door meetings and more informal conversations in an effort to exert some influence over their activities.
Every year, representatives from the OSL and other parts of Harvard’s administration—including Harvard University Police, the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response—meet with social club leaders and their graduate board affiliates, according to Lassonde. Typically, these meetings focus on rules surrounding hazing, drinking, and other University and state rules.
The meetings are not mandatory, but club members often choose to accept the invitation to keep up a relationship with administrators.
Besides these meetings, representatives from AODS and OSAPR regularly offer programming surrounding safe drinking and bystander intervention to final clubs. Last year, every male final club participated in bystander intervention training, according to Alicia Oeser, OSAPR’s director. Ryan M. Travia, the former director of the Department of Health Promotion and Education and AODS, said members of his office often visit social clubs and make presentations there.
More informally, administrators engage with club affiliates both on College property and on the clubs’ own. Shortly after becoming a House master, Khurana said a student invited him into an unrecognized social group’s building.
Travia, who left Harvard in March to take up a position at Babson College, added that he purposefully appointed social club members to become Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors, which has helped him build relationships with clubs and understand them better.
“I've also been very strategic in our recruiting of the DAPAs. Forty percent of the DAPAs are varsity athletes,” Travia said. “Over 30 percent of the DAPAs are affiliated with a social club. That's not by mistake. That's by design.”
According to Lassonde, administrators work with club members because they realize that the clubs are a force on campus. “We don’t recognize you, but we do recognize that all of your members are students, and you do have a certain purpose in campus culture and you need to know what is going on,” Lassonde said.
“Whether you’re on campus or off campus, whether you’re recognized or unrecognized, our students have a responsibility as Harvard College students who represent and use the privileges of being a Harvard College student that you don't get to pick and choose, and selectively invoke that and not invoke that,” Khurana said.
But lunches and occasional meetings between administrators and unrecognized social club members can only go so far. Because the College does not recognize these groups, administrators are limited in their ability to influence them, and some club affiliates say they are only so willing to engage.
John L. Powers ’70, the president of the all-male Fly Club’s graduate board, said administrators and club members agree on basic things like the need to curb at-risk drinking and create safe social spaces. But when it comes to talking about the existence of the clubs in general or their perceived exclusivity, he is less willing to engage administrators in that dialogue.
“What we do is I say, ‘I don't want to hear about “finals clubs” in general,’” Powers said, referring to the way that some non-club members incorrectly describe the clubs. “‘If you have an issue with the Fly or something that has happened there, let me know; let our steward know.’ That tends to work pretty well."
Reverend Douglas W. Sears '69, the president of the Fox Club’s graduate board and a former president of the Inter-Club Council before it disbanded, said the administration takes a hypocritical stance on final clubs. Harvard administrators fail to provide what he sees as an adequate alternative, Sears said, but then critiques them.
“Harvard's best and brightest, while decrying the existence of final clubs, in the last couple hundred years have not developed a system for undergraduate life that is as popular and as vibrant as the club scene,” Sears said. “[Final clubs] disproportionately take on the burdens of the socializing of Harvard students and also take on the burden of being criticized by Harvard for doing it. So it’s a rather hypocritical situation, but something Harvard seems very comfortable with.”
In general, Sears said he has always had professional relationships with administrators and thinks they share similar concerns around student health. But Sears said he takes issue with administrators’ argument that the clubs are exclusive when Harvard itself denies admission to the vast majority of its applicants.
When it comes to telling the clubs what to do, Powers said, the administration has little influence.
“They have no power to enforce us by their own decision,” said Powers, who is also a former Crimson sports editor. “They don't want responsibility for us, which I can understand. But it's also by the same token [that] they're not going to be able to tell us what to do."
Powers later added that he does not see the Fly becoming “inclusive” to the degree that administrators might hope.
To some, this lack of influence is a result of the nature of the official relationship between unrecognized social groups and the College. Jack C. Smith ’15, the former vice president of Harvard’s chapter of fraternity Sigma Chi, said the administration’s refusal to recognize some social clubs hinders its ability to regulate them.
"If you're not going to take those steps, and allow them to exist, but you're not going to be formally affiliated, you basically relinquish all control you have of these groups,” said Smith, who said his comments represent his own opinion, but not necessarily the fraternity’s.
Mitchell L. Dong ’75, a member of the Fly’s graduate board and a member of the Committee on University Resources, said administrators are in a difficult position where they want to control the clubs but realize they cannot.
“They don’t have control over [final clubs], just like they don’t have control over the restaurants and bars and clubs in Harvard Square,” Dong said. “But it’s not just a bar in Harvard Square; it’s a Harvard-related institution. So it kind of falls in their bailiwick and kind of doesn’t fall in their bailiwick. They can’t control it, yet it’s something they want to control, so I can see how it’s a thorn in their side.”
More than a dozen officers of fraternities, sororities, and female and male final clubs declined or did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
A NEW WAY FORWARD
Since becoming dean of the College last year, Khurana has entered the age-old administrative debate between the College and unrecognized social groups over their place on campus in something of an unconventional way. Last October, Khurana joined social club affiliates and other administrators at their regular meeting but changed its usual tone: He asked club affiliates probing questions about diversity and exclusivity, prompting mixed reactions from attendees. And in March, as students debated the Spee invitation, Khurana weighed in on the incident.
His message has been clear: Students in social clubs should consider how to make their organizations inclusive.
“I think he’s more vocal than deans past,” said UC Treasurer Meghamsh Kanuparthy ’16, who is not a member of an unrecognized social club.
Khurana, for his part, maintains that he is engaging with all students, and particularly student leaders, on the same issues of diversity and student inclusion.
Many undergraduates have lauded Khurana’s more public stance toward final clubs and other unrecognized social groups. But some worry that even this vocal approach may not be enough, and still others have criticized his response.
UC representative Happy Yang ’16 said the relationship between social clubs and the administration is often “obscure” and people do not always speak openly about it. She said she welcomed Khurana’s email in response to the Spee incident, but said she would like even more engagement from him on the topic, such as an open forum or statement clarifying his position on the groups.
Administrators “should exert greater pressure [on] these clubs,” Yang said.
Smith, who is a member of Harvard Men Against Rape, said he did not view the Spee’s recent party invitation or accompanying video, but praised Khurana for taking a stance on the matter. Still, he said that Khurana and undergraduates’ response amounted to a missed opportunity to engage further with a College-wide conversation on the issue.
Khurana’s response to the controversial party invitation and the College’s stance toward unrecognized social clubs, however, have also prompted criticism. Some students worry that Khurana has alienated members of unrecognized social groups in a way that could potentially hinder future negotiations.
"It's unfortunate that one of the repercussions of that sort of communication is that everyone associated with an unrecognized student group or a final club is suddenly painted with a broad brush as sexist, exclusive, unfriendly, unwelcoming," UC representative Brett M. Biebelberg ’16 said.
Others take issue with the nature of the debate about the role of final clubs and similar groups. Sears said he has has not met Khurana before, but thinks he follows a long line of “pontificators” about the existence of final clubs.
Some fraternity members argue that the College’s active refusal to recognize these social organizations contradicts its goals. Smith argued that because fraternities, like other unrecognized organizations at the College, cannot use College-wide email lists to attract prospective members, they can seem more exclusive than they are.
"Not having that makes it kind of more hush-hush and exclusive at Harvard, and I don't like exclusivity—I'm not a fan of that," Smith said.
Kanuparthy suggests that the best approach to regulating unrecognized groups would be to recognize them. He is not alone: Jimmie Hill '18, the president of the recently formed Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity “colony” at Harvard, said he would “love” for the College to recognize DKE and disagreed with the suggestion that the fraternity is not consistent with the values of diversity at the College. According to Hill, any undergraduate male may go through the rush and pledge process, and the group hosts open events.
But for the time being, the status quo, and the fragile relationship between social clubs and Harvard that characterizes it, remain. Administrators do not intend to recognize these groups.
“We’re not going to be recognizing fraternities or sororities at Harvard College based on my understanding of where we are and where we’re going,” said Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich, who oversees the College’s process of recognizing student groups. “We’re looking to the 21st century. We’re looking to encourage, again, our students to be thinking about how their experience plays out in the context of the mission that we have as the College. And that’s not a part of it.”
—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.