On Nov. 30, one undergraduate member of the Owl Club had had enough. After a semester characterized by increased graduate board control over the all-male final club, whose clubhouse has in recent years regularly been the scene of raucous parties, the member tapped out an acerbic 1,500 word email to the graduate board.
“We're facing a cancer within our organization, one that will ultimately destroy the entire organism,” the undergraduate wrote. “In case your acuity has waned in the many years since you have studied on this campus, let me eliminate all ambiguity. This graduate board is the cancer.”
In similarly strong terms, the remainder of the email criticized recent changes to club policy imposed by the graduate board in an attempt to establish more robust oversight. To that end, Owl alumni recently closed its 30 Holyoke St. clubhouse, and when it re-opens next spring only club members, not scores of party guests, will be able to step inside its doors.
The undergraduate’s email spurred an acrimonious exchange with one member of the graduate board, offering a glimpse into a wide rift between the undergraduate and graduate memberships over the fundamental character of the 120-year-old institution. It has also circulated widely among members of other final clubs.
With changes to the policy and stricter overall supervision, the student argued that the graduate board was limiting access to what he saw as two central aspects of involvement with the Owl club: alcohol and women.
“Now, you might contend that not all bonding and fun takes place around drinking. I would respond by asking you to reflect on your own college days and be realistic,” wrote the undergraduate, a senior at the College. “For college men the only other thing that fun revolves around is girls, and there will be none to be found near the Owl with your new rules.”
Further excoriating the policy shift, the author, who declined to comment for this story, wrote that “instituting a no-guest policy strikes a blow to the heart of everything that is good in the Owl” by limiting its members’ abilities to drink and host parties.
M. Barry Bausano ’85, a member of the graduate board who sent three emailed responses to the senior, contended in an interview Sunday night that, rather than striking a death blow to the club, the alumni board’s recent actions are merely “re-establishing some reasonable governance conditions on the club and the great majority of membership is in favor of that.”
“There are some intransigent resistors, but it’s a pretty narrow slice,” Bausano, who is the CEO and President of Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., said.
“The Owl cannot operate as a public conveyance for the entertainment of all and sundry undergraduates,” Bausano wrote in reply to the undergraduate, explaining the reasoning behind the new policies. “Not least for reasons of legal liability and university intolerance.”
The emails and their underlying conflict come at a particularly significant juncture in the club’s history as they, like Harvard’s six other all-male final clubs, prepare for impending penalties from the University for their single-gender status. In May of this year, Harvard announced a new policy that, starting with the Class of 2021, will bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from team captaincies, leadership positions, and College endorsement for certain fellowships. In announcing the unprecedented sanctions, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and University President Drew G. Faust painted the clubs as bastions of discrimination and exclusivity. Final clubs have also been the subject of scrutiny for statistics—heavily disputed by the clubs themselves—linking them with instances of sexual assault and harassment.
Indeed, Bausano’s responses explicitly referenced Harvard’s recent actions against the clubs.
“[S]o your solution [to] Harvard's objections is to ‘party on dude?’. Class of 2021 and beyond be damned?” Bausano wrote in his response to the undergraduate. “Actually, this attitude is precisely why adults are required.”
In his original email, though, the undergraduate questioned whether Harvard’s actions called for changes in the Owl’s policy.
“Additionally, your egregious paternalism under the guise of ‘increasing constraints set by Harvard’ is disgusting,” the student wrote. “The undergraduates see the current environment, and Harvard is not the issue.”
The language in the senior’s email ranged from formal to blunt to profane.
“If the reason you are closing the club and destroying this organization is to protect your investment in the ‘asset’, then fuck you,” he wrote.
Bausano’s emailed responses, which adopted a less inflammatory tone than the undergraduate’s, took issue with the senior’s approach. After noting that he knew the undergraduate’s father, Bausano wrote that “he'd be ashamed of the letter you've written.”
Beginning his first response, Bausano wrote: “With all due, but clearly not deserved respect, you are an idiot.”
One accusation Bausano addressed was the undergraduate’s assertion that alumni were unduly meddling in the selection of new members, pushing legacy applicants on current undergraduates.
“You endeavor to turn our club into the type of place that only caters to the type of rich, old boys that you used to know,” the undergraduate wrote. “When you have the power to (literally) rewrite the rules in order to re-engineer the membership in your (or your son's) favor, then why shouldn't you?”
Replying, Bausano wrote that though graduates mandate legacy applicants to the club “be given the fullest consideration,” the undergraduates have the ultimate say on questions of membership. Bausano also asserted that the Owl, which currently consists heavily of athletes, should strive to recruit from a more extracurricularly diverse set.
“High concentrations of a single sport or activity within a club have historically been quite divisive and often destructive,” Bausano wrote. “A couple to several is fine, more is too much.”
The undergraduate saw the clubhouse’s temporary closure and new members-only policy as a further attempt on the part of the graduate board to alter the character of the club.
“So, why don’t we have the prestige and allure of the A.D. club or the Porcellian? ... imitating the rules governing their undergraduates will never, ever give you the results you seek,” the undergraduate wrote.
The Porcellian and A.D. clubs, which enjoy more highbrow reputations than the Owl, both have policies barring non-member events.
Tension between final clubs’ undergraduate members, who regularly benefit from the club’s multi-million dollar properties, and graduates who are ultimately responsible for the upkeep and liability of the club, is nothing new. Last academic year, the Fox Club experienced a similar rift between its graduate and undergraduate members after its undergraduates added women to their ranks without consulting the graduate board. That decision kicked off a bitter, months-long back-and-forth, ending with a summer vote that reaffirmed the club’s single-gender status yet retained “provisional” membership for the women in question.
“We love Harvard and we want to be good and constructive members of the Harvard community and that’s the driving issue for us,” Bausano said in the interview, contextualizing the graduate board’s recent re-assertion of influence.
Administrators’ new policy on clubs like the Owl, however, is designed to minimize the influence of single-gender clubs on the larger campus environment. Bausano didn’t comment specifically on the policy, saying “it sounds like the faculty and the administration are debating that issue.”
“We’ll await the result of that,” he said.
—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.