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It’s time to talk about dismantling final clubs. Their existence is premised on exclusivity. It is central to their role in the campus social landscape. Being a final club member signifies fitting into an elite social circle that rejects subpar classmates. The clubs foster de facto sexual violence, racism, and class domination. Only abolition of the clubs will show true commitment to inclusion and respect.
Clubs function on the premise that outsiders don’t deserve to know how they operate. What we know comes from hearsay or leaked emails. Without transparency in selection, we are left with a sour taste in our mouths as we see the “elite” among us get selected for punch. How can a club be truly diverse when its membership process is predicated on double-selectiveness? Punch squelches any possibility of attracting members with truly varied experiences.
Despite the secrecy, clubs are constantly a topic of campus conversation, dating back to a 1958 Crimson article: “there is a strong undemocratic tinge to the system which rubs off on anyone who joins it…only the most exceptional Jew or Negro would have a chance of being accepted.”
In fact, the first black member of a final club was initiated in 1965, over a century after the first black student was admitted to the College. While current diversity figures for final clubs are slightly better than 1965, it’s impossible to ignore the public image: pockets of white wealthy partiers, sealed off from the rest of campus in million-dollar mansions. After all, in 2013, a solid 26 percent of final club members reported in Flyby's final club survey that they come from backgrounds with parental incomes over $500,000.
And we haven’t yet mentioned sexism. As a final club member in 2010 wrote, “All-male final clubs carve out a corner of the social world that revolves around the preferences of men, and men alone.” All-male final clubs still rely on females who come to their parties. Women are, in this scenario, props used to make male-dominated party spaces more “fun.” In 1984, when final clubs weren’t interested in gender integration, the College disaffiliated from them on the basis of gender discrimination.
Recently, the Spee Club sent out invitations to a “pajama party” featuring Playboy imagery and a video of scantily clad women as a means of inviting guests to “stay the night.” The club issued an apology—but is it an apology for the latest in final club sexism, or an apology that they were caught?
Harvard has no control over what final clubs choose to do, or what happens at final clubs. This is especially troubling as Harvard’s final clubs just can’t seem to shake their reputation as havens for sexual assault. While some clubs do choose to undergo training with Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, this is not required by any means—in the 2012-2013 school year, it was considered a success that OSAPR trained all but two of the clubs.
Dean Khurana’s attempts to bring to light the issues of final club diversity are commendable, but we have doubts about the efficacy of one dean’s protests against a historically solid network of final club members and alumni. The administration explains its inaction by claiming lack of jurisdiction. Final clubs are considered off-campus spaces by the administration, despite the fact that they surround the River Houses. The administration’s silence is a political position that amounts to complicity in the damaging culture fostered by the final clubs.
It is of no use to discuss how these clubs may coexist with the rest of the campus, or how they might be made more inclusive. The recent but small strides in diversity that the clubs tout should not distract from the privilege and exclusion that drive the clubs’ activities.
Our concern is this: the clubs’ elite membership go on to run the world in the image of how they understand it—through the narrow lens of exclusion. Harvard commends itself on valuing diversity and inclusion. We must not tacitly tolerate institutions that facilitate such damaging social spaces. By allowing these institutions to exclude, Harvard condones an ideology of false “deservingness” that has caused exclusionary harm in the past.
Every day that the University does not acknowledge the final club problem is another day complicit in elitism and exclusion. While the ideal final outcome is the abolition of these clubs, the administration must begin by thoughtfully engaging with clubs to identify what real purpose they serve for students. And with student input, the University must prove to us that it values open, safer, and diverse social spaces, providing regular and well-planned alternatives to final club parties and supporting social events within dorm rooms and residential houses. Students in final clubs must consider their own complicity in these structures. We ask them to ponder their membership in institutions that actively discriminate against their classmates, weighing this membership against values of inclusion, honor, and equal opportunity.
Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender & sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Jordan T. Weiers ’16 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.
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