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Op Eds

Why I Cannot Vote Yes or No on the Lewis Motion

By David L. Howell

As a member of the Faculty Council, I have participated in a series of long discussions on a motion that Professor Harry Lewis presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Ordinarily, the Faculty Council votes on motions before they are presented to the entire Faculty. In this case, however, the Faculty Council took the highly unusual step of declining to vote on the motion. I would like to explain to the entire Harvard College community why I concur with the decision not to vote and why this motion is harmful to the Faculty.

The motion reads, “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal.” Supporters have said explicitly that they expect its passage to force the College to rescind its new policy of sanctioning members of final clubs and other unrecognized single-gender social organizations.

Whatever the expectations of its supporters, the motion does not refer to the policy at all. Rather, it simply calls on the Faculty to state its opposition to discrimination. Or, to be more precise, it calls on the Faculty to reaffirm its opposition to discrimination. The Harvard College Handbook for Students already includes a strong statement against discrimination: “Discrimination based on race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, creed, national origin, age, ancestry, veteran status, disability, military service, or any other legally protected basis is contrary to the principles and policies of Harvard University.”

Based on the actual language of the motion, it is not at all clear that a “yes” vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences would require the College to rescind the policy. All I can say for sure is that voting “yes” would be redundant insofar as it would simply reaffirm a general anti-discrimination policy already in place.

Redundancy by itself is inefficient but perhaps not harmful. However, given the expectations of many of the motion’s supporters, there is a danger of real harm to the Faculty and Harvard more generally in passing a motion that may not achieve its proponents’ aims. Therefore, I could not vote in support of the motion.

If I could not vote in favor of the motion, why not vote against it? Again, I looked to the language of the motion, which refers only to discrimination on the basis of membership in various organizations. I do not oppose the freedom of association as a matter of general principle. Given the wording of the motion, a “no” vote would be, in effect, a vote in favor of discrimination. Voting “no,” with its absolutely false suggestion that the Harvard Faculty embraces discrimination, would do real harm to the Faculty and Harvard more generally.

I welcome robust debate on the College’s policy regarding unrecognized single-gender social organizations. I have my personal opinion, as do my fellow Council members. Regarding the Lewis motion, however, the Faculty Council reached a clear conclusion. The motion is flawed because its wording and its apparent intent do not align. I continue to believe that whether “yes” or “no,” a vote would harm the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard University. Therefore, I declined to vote.

David L. Howell is Professor of Japanese History and a member of the Faculty Council and the Docket Committee.

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