Last fall, some members of the all-male Fox Club wanted to go co-ed. For over 100 years, the club had invited only men to join the club through the traditional process of punch. A few members, however, believed that it was time to put up women for potential admission into the group.
This wasn’t the first time that members had brought up that topic, says Reverend Douglas W. Sears ’69, the Fox Club graduate board president. But Sears was clear in September: “There is no plan this fall to punch any women, period.”
Sears, who was also president of the now-defunct Inter-Club Council in the 1990s, says he wants to make sure undergraduates think critically about changes they might make to the club.
“There are some undergraduates who are perhaps looking for their place in history more than they are for doing something that’s actually workable,” Sears says. He added that he directed one member, who was leading a move for the Fox to punch women, to write a position paper on the proposed move’s implications and potential outcomes.
More than a dozen members of the Fox did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In general, Sears says that any “major” changes would need approval or consultation from the club’s graduate board.
“The undergraduates of the Fox Club can vote on whatever they want to, but that doesn’t necessarily leave anything other than expressed opinion,” Sears says.
The Fox is one of many undergraduate groups, including The Crimson, that has a graduate board. Many undergraduate clubs and groups, whether recognized or unrecognized, have grad boards that oversee their functions. Final club grad boards have existed for decades. Other groups on campus, like Harvard Student Agencies or Fuerza Latina, however, have just begun to form theirs.
Grad boards are groups made up of Harvard College alumni who voluntarily take on oversight roles for specific clubs located on the undergraduate campus. Grad boards often work closely with undergraduate organizations’ leadership, though the extent of their influence varies from group to group.
Embedded into some clubs and campus groups is a latent tension between the old and the new. Though the clubs stay the same in name, members of grad boards oftentimes find themselves interacting with a student and campus milieu that differs from their own past experiences. Grad board members offer professional and even personal advice to college students. Yet, when undergraduates want to make changes to their organization, the balance between grad board power and undergraduate autonomy is tested.
John L. Powers ’70, graduate board president of the Fly Club and a former Crimson sports writer, jokes that he spends more time at the club than his wife may want. He chuckles softly at this remark, but there’s clearly some truth behind it. Depending on the time of year, especially before large events like the Harvard-Yale football game, he might be at the Fly between 10 to 15 hours a week, he says. In an average week, he spends a couple of hours at the club. A sports writer for the Boston Globe, he occasionally finds himself finishing some writing there.
For Powers, the Fly is primarily a graduate organization, with nearly 1,000 alumni members, he estimates, and only about 60 undergraduates. While alumni might not be allowed into all of Harvard’s campus buildings and dormitories, Fly grads can always find a way to get into the club.
“One of the things that I preach to the undergraduates is that 5 o’clock the day after Commencement, they deactivate your swipe from [your] House,” Powers says. “You become an intruder on this place. The Fly Club is one of the few places on campus where, for the rest of your life, you can come back to and know you will be welcome, have something in common, and your sons and grandsons in your family will be able to come in.”
Powers says the grad board at the Fly has to ensure that the club doesn’t go bankrupt, something accomplished partially through undergraduate dues, but mostly through voluntary alumni donations. Another concern of Powers’ is establishing that undergraduates protect the club so as to avoid what he considers a potential “liability.”
“As we tell the undergrads, I said: Think about if you want to put a 200-year club at risk or gamble it on the metabolism of an 18-year-old woman,” Powers says. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Powers, who was part of two clubs that disbanded before he joined the Fly—the Iroquois Club, which ran out of money, and the D.U. Club, which was shut down following the beating of a high school football recruit visiting the club—takes his role as overseer of the Fly seriously.
As overseers for their respective groups, grad board members need to stay in the know about campus happenings. Connecting with students, whether through email or social events, allows grad boards to gauge changes in campus life and cater their aid to undergraduates’ specific concerns.
Describing the Oak Club, its graduate board president John F. Welch ’10 says that it’s “a pretty self-sufficient undergrad organization.” He credits that characteristic to the club’s relative newness (it was founded in January of 2005).
Students have “the flexibility to shape the club and to craft the club in a way they think is the best manifestation [during] the time they’re there,” Welch adds. The Oak’s graduate board supports that elasticity by advising the undergraduate leadership on budgetary planning for events, for instance.
The HSA Alumni Graduate Board formalizes its connection to its undergraduate unit through similar mingling events. Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a former Crimson editorial writer and current HSA graduate board president, believes that one of the board’s goals is to bring people closer together. “That means alums to alums, and current students, and that involves a lot of membership,” he says. The alumni group, officially founded in 2012, now hosts alumni weekends, multiple mixers, and an annual banquet.
Final clubs typically hold at least yearly reunion meetings that help bring graduates and undergraduates together. Additionally, Sears and Powers both agree that having a local grad board president helps the undergraduates and alumni in their clubs stay on the same page and keep updated on the changing face of undergraduate life.
“A number of clubs in the past...had a president who was in New York,” Powers says. “It’s good for fundraising if that’s where most of your donors have tended to be. But the guy becomes like the Great Oz. No one knows him. No one sees him.”
Andrew S. Birsh ’78, graduate board president of the Phoenix Club, and Kenneth G. Bartels ’73, graduate board president of the A.D. Club, declined to comment for this story. Spee Grad Board President Arthur C. Anton Jr. ’81 said that the graduates, alumni, and undergraduates at the club work together, but declined to comment further, citing the private nature of the club’s policies and procedures.
Members and alumni of all female final clubs, the Bee Club, the Isis Club, the Pleiades Society, La Vie Club, and the Sablière Society, declined to comment for this story, citing their no press policies. The oldest of the five, the Bee, was founded in 1991.
Grad boards can have a tangible influence on their members lives’ even outside the confines of undergraduate organizations. Serving almost as an unofficial extension of the Office of Career Services, grad boards provide opportunities for professional advancement and access to a vast alumni network.
Cary A. Williams ’16, president of Association of Black Harvard Women, dedicated her term to reinvigorating ABHW’s relationship with its alumnae. This year, the organization formed a “grad committee” to promote alumnae outreach and mentorship. According to Williams, having alumnae as mentors allows ABHW to transcend the four-year undergraduate experience.
Before ABHW’s 40th anniversary took place this past March, the undergraduate board made a huge effort to have alumnae come back and reconnect. “We want to make sure [alumnae] have a stake in what the organization is right now and not just come back for the sake of reliving their years as an ABHW undergrad, but really feeling like ABHW’s remaining relevant,” Williams explains.
Williams’s comments point to the ever-changing nature of student organizations, which see their memberships fluctuate and needs change every year.
For the Seneca, the professional development side of a grad board was built into the group’s mission.
“It was important to the Seneca founders that something women started having access to was a strong alumnae community that can help not just with the social aspects, but also with professional ones,” Anne F. Wenk '15 says.
Some grad boards of older clubs are very professionally well-connected. Paul J. Zofnass ’69, a member of Harvard’s Committee on University Resources and former member of the Hasty Pudding Club’s board of directors, says he once came to a Pudding grad board member to ask if he knew any contacts at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, an investment firm. The grad board member happened to know all three partners.
“Inheritance and genealogy I think are far less important today than it was in the 60s, and probably going back for hundreds of years at Harvard before that—but clearly the clubs open up all kinds of doors,” Zofnass says.
Zofnass is fond of tying his experiences into what he sees as larger points about human psychology. In general, he says that grad board members of clubs look out for their own and try to help undergraduates where they can.
“Whenever you are a member of an organization, almost any organization, you develop a natural affinity for the people there, and you are proud, hopefully, to be part of that organization,” Zofnass says. “You therefore tend to go out of your way to be helpful for people in any situation where you think you can be helpful for them, or give them a break, or make an introduction for them, or put in a positive word for them.”
Grad board advice also addresses specific problems that a group’s undergraduate leadership may be facing at any given time.
Oftentimes, that perspective is useful when Harvard’s resources fall short. “Our mission is to serve and empower the black woman at Harvard,” Williams emphasizes. “While support from the College at large is always appreciated, there’s something special and really valuable about having those people who share this specific experience reaching back and sharing what was so valuable to them.”
Alvin F. Gordián-Arroyo ’17, president of Fuerza Latina, also sees grad boards as a valuable resource. Outside of having a “strong connection” with undergraduates, Gordián-Arroyo notes that alumni are particularly well-suited to work with issues facing the Latino community at Harvard.
“Especially within the Latino community, a lot of individuals are low-income, first-gen[eration], may not have a lot of connections,” he says. “The alumni association’s goal is to provide a bit of that sense of familia. If you need a job over the summer, and you can’t find one, we’ll hook you up. If you need a place to stay, for your parents to stay over graduation because they’re coming and they can only afford a ticket and not a hotel, we got you covered as well.”
Gordián-Arroyo envisions the Harvard Latino Alumni Alliance, recognized by the Harvard Alumni Association this past February, as a “network of communication” that will put students in touch with contacts that they might not have been able to get otherwise. It marks the first instance of a single centralized group that connects Latino alumni and students at the College and Harvard’s graduate schools, says Dorothy Villarreal ’15, co-chair of Concilio Latino. In order to be recognized by the HAA, they had to gather at least 50 signatures. Concilio Latino, a group that provides administrative structure to the College’s Latino groups, Latino alumni, and other students, managed to collect over 500.
“I thought it was really important to try and speak with the alums to try and create that involvedness, because I feel like I’ve put a lot of my time and dedication to the community here at Harvard, and I’m about to graduate,” says Villarreal. “I didn’t just want for it to leave and disappear.”
The assistance that grad boards provide to undergraduates ranges from broadly structural issues to more specific instances concerning individual students. On the social front, even grad boards of unrecognized social clubs often become involved when undergraduates run into trouble with the administration.
“If there is a problem with any of the organizations, typically we will call on their alumni leadership as well, their governance boards to talk about whatever the issue is,” says Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde. “They’re very eager to help to make sure their members are compliant with undergraduate regulations.”
“When something goes wrong, grad boards are also very involved because they understand, from a liability perspective, they have skin in the game,” says an undergraduate president of a social club who was granted anonymity because speaking to The Crimson is against his club’s rules. “If there is a lawsuit, at this point in my life, I don’t have a lot to give. Whereas certain grad board members are, financially at least, where the gold is. They do have a lot at stake.”
Some administrators have expressed concern about the role of these traditions in undergraduate social life. For one, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who has publicly voiced his apprehension towards final clubs and other single-gender social organizations, pushes students to think critically about all groups’ practices. “We really want to encourage our community to really think carefully about those taken for granted practices that often got handed down to them and are mindlessly reproduced without any interrogation about what does it do for the mission of our college,” Khurana says.
At least every year, administrators meet with students from Harvard’s unrecognized social clubs to primarily go over rules surrounding hazing, drinking, and sexual assault. Grad boards are often invited to these meetings. Khurana plans to meet with the grad board members of final clubs on May 4, according to a copy of an email invitation obtained by The Crimson.
At times, administrators even go into club houses to provide specific programming to a club and talk with its grad board representatives.
“Over the years, I have gotten to know various members of graduate boards of the clubs,” says Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich. “The way we think about graduate boards, whether it’s for a recognized or unrecognized group, is that these are alumni who have been invested in these organizations over time. Our hope is that they’re going to encourage these kinds of experiences for undergraduates that align with not only the policies, but the values and priorities of the institution.”
Some grad board presidents are very well aware of Harvard’s administrative structures and benefit from that relationship. Powers says that over the years he has developed a relationship with administrators at Harvard, including University Police Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley. This relationship proved useful a few years ago, Powers says, when he received a tip from HUPD that the Cambridge Police Department would be patrolling Mt. Auburn very closely on the first weekend of the academic year. Powers suggested that the undergraduates just get a keg and do a members-only event, rather than risk any incident with the police.
Overall, Powers says it’s the grad board that can offer input on how clubs can stay out of trouble.
“One of the things the grad board exists for is to give a long term perspective and to see the dangers that can come with certain behaviors,” Powers says.
Some grad boards oversee the formative stages of their clubs’ membership and rules governing the club. Beyond helping their members plan punch events, social club grad boards designate certain students that the club must admit.
In 1993, Fly undergraduates voted 28-0 with one abstention for the club to admit women. The grad board took a vote on the matter and said that a co-ed punch could happen the next fall. By that time, the consensus for the decision had vanished, and many of the people propagating the change had graduated. The Fly continues to only punch males.
After the death of MIT first-year Scott S. Krueger at his fraternity house in 1997, many grad boards tightened restrictions on their guest policies. When undergraduates didn’t follow the rules, there were consequences. In 1999, the Spee’s grad board changed the locks on the club’s building when undergraduates were found violating the no-guest policy. That same year, the Owl Club temporarily shut its door to members, much to the bewilderment of even the undergrad president at the time.
Today, grad boards primarily see themselves as advisory boards, but a few do have direct influence on the club’s composition.
“No undergrad club likes to be told what to do,” says the social club president. “They don’t like to be told who to take. They don’t like to be told when to have events. They don’t like that general feeling.”
In his club, he claims, the grad board tells the undergrad president to admit two to three specific people out of every punch class. Sometimes they are legacies, sometimes friends of grad board members, and sometimes the connection is entirely elusive, the social club president says.
At the Fly, Powers says that all legacies, defined as the grandson, son, or brother of a member, are punched. He says that the undergraduate leadership in the club doesn’t have to admit legacies, but that a legacy who wants to join the Fly rarely does not get elected.
“My understanding with the undergrads is, if you are having an issue with a legacy, if you may not want to elect him, let me know, because I’ll be hearing from his brother, his father,” Powers says. “He won’t be happy, so I need to know that.”
Powers says that year to year the number of legacies in the club varies. This year, Powers say that six of the roughly 20 members admitted were legacies.
In addition to playing a role in punch, Powers says that the grad board negotiated new, written rules for the undergraduates this semester, primarily centered around defining what constitutes a party, which would require a doorman and a guest list. Fly members may collectively have up to around 20 guests over to the club without writing up a guest list and may have one party per 10 academic calendar days, Powers says.
Additionally, Powers says that if the undergraduates want to go co-ed, they must take a vote on the issue and receive two-thirds support for two years in a row.
Zofnass says that he doesn’t know how much grads come into play with shaping the makeup of the Hasty Pudding Club now, but when he was an undergrad, it was not uncommon for grads of the club to leverage for undergraduates they knew. Andrew L. Farkas ’82, chairman and “Grand Sphinx” of the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770, could not be reached for comment.
“It was pretty normal that a former member would call the current president and say, ‘Hey, I know this fellow. I know his family. He’s a good person. You really ought to go after him or punch him,’” Zofnass says.
At the Fox, Sears says grad board members may make suggestions to undergraduates about which students to punch, but it is ultimately up to the under- graduates to decide who is admitted.
Wenk says that at the Seneca, the undergraduate membership is left entirely up to the undergraduates.
Back at HSA Headquarters, home of dated and recent copies of Let’s Go and class ring orders, HSA president Patrick F. Scott ’16 says HSA prides itself on having students set the organization’s tone.
After clarifying that HSA’s grad board is “not a governing body,” Scott continues, “most of [the grad board members] would recognize that ultimately, it’s about students, and that students aren’t really going to get the same experience if they’re not given the free reign to do what they want.”
Jacob T. Bradt ’16, undergraduate president of the Oak, agrees that its grad board has less of a “prescriptive role” than what he believes other undergraduate clubs might have. “It’s really kind of a mutualistic relationship in that both the undergraduate board and the alumni board are really trying to help each other out in any way possible,” he says.
Fostering relationships between undergraduates and grad boards will, according to Villarreal, leave a lasting legacy on Harvard’s institutional memory. “The [HLAA] is going to have a really great impact on students that need that extra help,” she explains. “[Alumni] can also take a bigger role in trying to advocate where we don’t have the time to.”
On some level, grads and undergraduates in a club can even become friends.
“Mostly, people come to you for career advice and contacts looking for a job.... But you become friends with all these people and there’s life advice too,” says Mitchell L. Dong ’75, a member of the Fly Club’s graduate board and a member of Harvard’s Committee on University Resources. “They’ll come to you with, ‘Oh I’m breaking up with my girlfriend’ or ‘I’m thinking of getting married’ or ‘I’m thinking of moving to New York, or LA, or China,’ or ‘What do you think about going into private equity versus going into tech?’”
By nature, grad boards exist to serve undergraduates. The balance between the undergraduates’ day-to-day operations and the grad boards’ long-term vision requires constant attention. At heart, though, grad boards and undergraduates forge alliances that stem from a shared allegiance to the same organization.
“Even though there is diversity within the organization, we’re all bound by a common mission and common values,” says Bari M. Schwartz ’07, graduate board president of the Seneca and a former Crimson writer.
Despite the sometimes poorly delineated dynamics of their relationship, grad boards and undergraduates work through some underlying tensions, generational differences, and conflicting interests to develop powerful, collaborative organizations that thoroughly influence undergraduate life.
“Alumni have a role in reminding the undergraduates of the traditions of the club and the fact that it is owned in large part by the people currently in the undergraduate organization,” says Welch. “That’s the lifeblood of it, but there’s a lot of other people who have left there that still look very fondly upon their time at the club and have a stake in its reputation and its continued success.”
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.
—Staff writer Valeria M. Pelet can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vmpelet.