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Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and final clubs have for months retained a frayed relationship. While Khurana has publicly emphasized ample amounts of “common ground” between the two parties, many final club affiliates—behind closed doors and in private communications—have criticized administrators, who have increasingly pressured the historically single-sex groups to adopt gender-neutral memberships.
Now, after months of tension and one rare public statement from the Porcellian club, the Fly, another final club, has publicly called for an end to Khurana’s involvement in negotiations with the unrecognized, historically single-gender organizations.
In a letter addressed to Khurana, graduate president of the Fly Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 requested “details of allegations (if any) of sexual assaults involving Fly Club premises” in the past five years and called for Khurana to “recuse himself from further discussion with final clubs because of conflicts of interest and perceived, if not actual, ethical impropriety.”
While the letter praised Khurana and his wife Stephanie R. Khurana as “exemplary individuals...well-liked even by those who oppose their agenda,” Porteus was sharply critical of the dean’s rationale for compelling single-gender social organizations to widen their membership.
In addition to requesting information on alleged Fly Club-related assaults and Khurana’s recusal, Porteus’s four-page letter included broader criticisms of the methodology and conclusions of a recent University-wide task force report on sexual assault prevention that upbraided final clubs for creating a culture “often inimical to Harvard College.”
Porteus’s letter also offers a glimpse into Khurana’s attitude toward the clubs, which differs markedly from that of his predecessors. The letter additionally provides details about a year of meetings between College administrators and final clubs that Khurana has repeatedly insisted are confidential.
“In the interest of transparency,” Porteus wrote, he sent a copy of the letter to a Crimson reporter. Khurana sent a brief response to Porteus thanking him for his “ongoing willingness” to engage in discussions about campus environment.
‘PERCEIVED, IF NOT ACTUAL, ETHICAL IMPROPRIETY’
According to the letter, Porteus has now twice requested details on any allegation of sexual assault related to the Fly Club over the past five years and “deemed credible” by the College. He also made the request at a confidential meeting on April 13.
Porteus wrote that over the four years studied in last year’s University-wide sexual climate survey, College administrators have “shared no allegation of sexual assault occurring on Fly Club premises or involving Fly Club members or their guests, if indeed any such reports or allegations were received and deemed credible by the administration.”
“Nevertheless,” Porteus added, “the administration has included the Fly Club in its campaign of innuendo and threats, a campaign seemingly aimed at achieving the political agenda of the administration, rather than ensuring the safety of Harvard undergraduates.”
Porteus’s subsequent request that Khurana “voluntarily recuse himself” from discussion of final club policy rested on several perceived “conflicts of interest” that Porteus argued should disqualify Khurana from further discussions with the clubs.
First, he wrote that Khurana has referred to himself in previous meetings as an “‘employee’ operating under specific instructions from his ‘employer’ (his words) to impose coed membership on single-gender student social organizations that exist independent of the university.” Porteus argued that meetings with Khurana have focused almost exclusively on co-ed membership policies rather than on sexual assault prevention.
Khurana’s superior, University President Drew G. Faust, has made unusually public comments regarding final clubs this year. William F. Lee ’72, a senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, has also said the Corporation “regularly” discusses final clubs with Khurana. Both Faust and Lee, though, have described their club-related work with Khurana as collaborative rather than directive.
Porteus argued that Khurana’s commitment to the “unproven and contentious premise” that independent single-gender social clubs contribute to sexual assault on campus denies club members “the opportunity to respond to specific complaints, if any, and plac[es] a life-long cloud over their affiliation with a single-gender final club, male or female.”
Third, Porteus argued that as “an administrator of a university that stands to lose” its federal funding if an ongoing Title IX investigation does not go Harvard’s way, Khurana’s “incentive to blame, then claim to reform unrecognized, independent, single-gender, student social organizations is obvious.”
The College is currently under investigation by the Department of Education for Title IX compliance.
Khurana’s fourth perceived “conflict of interest,” Porteus wrote, is a pending federal suit from recent alumna Alyssa R. Leader ’15 charging that administrators permitted her alleged assailant to remain living in Cabot House with her despite requests to remove him. At the time of the complaint, Khurana was Cabot’s House Master, a title that has since been changed to Faculty Dean.
“Focusing attention on student membership in independent single-gender social organizations, male and female, diverts attention from a law suit,” Porteus wrote.
A University-wide task force report referenced survey data indicating that 47 percent of senior women at the College who had participated in final club activities reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact since beginning College—the highest rate of any student activity polled.
Porteus criticized the University’s task force on sexual assault prevention, claiming that it focuses too heavily on final clubs as opposed to Harvard’s Houses, where, according to the report, 87 percent of reported sexual assaults involving female victims took place.
“The report does not mention the words ‘House’ or ‘dormitory’ in either its introduction or key recommendations (pp. 1-3),” Porteus wrote. “Nevertheless, one of six key recommendations is that final clubs ‘include all genders’ (p. 3).”
Porteus further argued that Khurana’s position as a Harvard Business School professor, “which many of the threatened students, male and female, hope to attend,” creates an environment in which club members feel “frightened and undermined even if they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Porteus wrote that these alleged “conflicts of interest” are sufficient grounds for Khurana to recuse himself from further final club discussion.
“The time has come to refocus attention, away from the political ends of the current university administration, and back on student safety,” Porteus wrote.
Ending his letter, Porteus requested an “acknowledgment” of his requests by April 29, in time for the upcoming meeting of the Fly’s board of directors. Finally, Porteus wrote that he would send a copy of his letter to the graduate leaders of the 12 other final clubs and The Crimson.
In a separate email to The Crimson, Porteus wrote he had not thought much about who he would like to see replace Khurana as the main liaison between the administration and the clubs.
“That’s entirely up to the administration,” Porteus wrote. “I just hope they can identify someone who knows how to set a more welcoming table.”
In a brief response to Porteus, Khurana thanked him for his “ongoing willingness to engage with the College in the important conversations about how this community can create a healthy and inclusive campus environment.”
While College spokesperson Rachael Dane did not respond to a request for comment on whether Khurana would agree to either of Porteus’s recommendations, Khurana’s email suggested that Porteus’s request that Khurana recuse himself, at least, might not be accepted any time soon.
“Throughout our discussions, the College has a single objective, namely doing what is best for the student body at Harvard College,” Khurana wrote to Porteus. “I look forward to carrying on in that effort as conversations with you and the other club leaders continue.”
A TROUBLED PAST
Requests aside, Porteus’s letter highlight how Khurana’s approach to final clubs has diverged widely from that of his predecessors. While the clubs have officially been unaffiliated with the University since 1984, recent years have seen some engagement and coordination between current administrators and club leaders.
At the April 13 meeting between Khurana and club leaders, according to Porteus’s letter, Porteus said that “one or more of the club's graduate officers have attended every informational meeting and every training session conducted by the Office of Student Life to which the Fly Club has been invited.”
Porteus wrote that these included annual meetings with then-Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde, Assistant Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich, Christopher M. Gilbert from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and Michelle Mandino from the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services.
A vocal critic of final clubs, Khurana has repeatedly reiterated his belief that “single-gendered organizations are not appropriate for the College.”
Last fall, the previously all-male Spee and Fox clubs accepted women into their ranks—though the female members of the Fox club are still only “provisional” members. In a letter to graduates explaining their decision to accept women into the club, undergraduates wrote that administrative pressure from College administrators had compelled them to make their decision so quickly.
The administration has buttressed its case against the clubs’ single-gender policies by citing high sexual assault rates associated with the clubs. These figures were drawn from a sexual climate survey conducted through the AAU in which multiple universities participated. A letter from the chair of the task force for sexual response, Steven E. Hyman, reported that at least 15 percent of sexual assaults occurred at “single-sex organizations that are not fraternities and sororities,” a designation administrators said was intended to denote final clubs.
A subsequent University-wide report this spring, citing AAU survey data, indicated that 47 percent of “female College seniors participating in the Final Clubs reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.”
Porteus’s letter, however, criticized Harvard’s interpretation of the AAU survey data.
“As the national press has begun to question, the Final Report of the Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Assault draws a number of conclusions about final clubs that are not supported by the data obtained from the AAU Harvard Survey,” Porteus wrote.
A Washington Post op-ed by Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, for instance, claimed that “it would be almost impossible to concoct a more meaningless statistic” than the 47 percent figure cited in the Task Force’s final report. Flanagan argued that the figure could refer to incidents that did not occur on final club properties or happened regardless of a student’s participation in a final club event.
Hyman, who penned the report and the letter following the AAU Survey results’ fall release, defended the task force’s recommendations in an email to the Crimson, writing that they “were based not only on the AAU sexual conduct survey, but also on the extensive qualitative data gathered at scores of meetings with Harvard undergraduates.”
“The survey found that 47 percent of female Harvard College seniors participating in Final Club activities had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact compared to the campus-wide average of 31 percent,” Hyman wrote. “ This differential represents a very substantial increase in risk to female students, a finding that was amply confirmed in the data gathering sessions held in the College. While the combined data shows that sexual assault has many antecedents--leading the Task Force to make a diversity of recommendations--the Task Force could hardly ignore the significantly heightened risk to female students that was associated with Final Club activities.”
In a statement to the Crimson on April 12, then-graduate president of the Porcellian club Charles M. Storey ’82 also criticized the report for conflating “the issues of sexual assault, gender equity, and exclusivity.”
Storey has since apologized for his comments and resigned from his role on the Porcellian’s graduate board.
By the end of the academic year, Khurana will present a plan, which will include specific policies on final clubs, to address the suggestions in the Hyman report.
—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.
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