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Harvard, Gender, Rhodes, and Final Clubs

A key sanction the University has adopted in its opposition to unrecognized single-sex social organizations like final clubs is to deny their members endorsements for Rhodes Scholarships and other fellowships requiring the University's imprimatur. I administer the Rhodes Scholarships in the United States, although I write this strictly in my personal capacity.

This is not the first time university endorsements for the Rhodes Scholarships have been linked to issues of gender discrimination.

In his late 19th century will, Cecil J. Rhodes restricted the scholarships he would endow to "male students." By the 1970s, and just as Oxford University and its constituent colleges started to act with urgency to create substantially greater admissions opportunities for women, the Rhodes Trustees, leading American universities, and many Rhodes Scholars felt it critical to open the scholarships to women. Harvard, for example, provocatively endorsed three women in 1973, knowing of course they were ineligible. But the change to allow women, widely desired on both sides of the Atlantic, was not easy to effect. British law allowed the Rhodes Trustees no discretion to alter the terms of a will.

While British legal processes were underway, the Rhodes Trust was concerned that actions such as Harvard's and a few other universities, two lawsuits, the implications of recently-enacted Title IX, and threats by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department would make it impossible for the American Rhodes Scholarships to continue. In 1974, while the British legal changes were pending, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust ended the institutional endorsement requirement, leaving students able to apply without the formal support of their colleges, and leaving American institutions arguably more insulated from possible Title IX sanctions. Fortunately, the British government, through Parliamentary action, soon removed the discriminatory terms set in the Rhodes will, and 13 women, including three from Radcliffe, were elected in 1976 to enter Oxford in 1977. The university endorsement requirement was later reestablished.

With Harvard's newly-announced policy, this Rhodes Trust endorsement requirement may again play a role relating to gender exclusivity. Given the considerable number of Harvard sophomores who aspire to scholarships like the Rhodes or the Marshall, the effect of disallowing the applications of those who join organizations that the University has determined to be inimical to its core values of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination is likely to be great—perhaps far more so than the sanctions to be attached to college leadership positions.

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I was a Harvard Rhodes Scholar in 1974, the pivotal year of the behind-the-scenes changes that would open the world's oldest and probably most famous scholarship to women two years later. I remember being impressed by the moral strength of a few classmates who—while they had the records of academic excellence, character, service, and leadership our selectors look for, and wanted to study at Oxford—did not apply because of the exclusion of women, an ethical standard the vast majority of us did not live up to. The Rhodes Scholarships could not have retained their stature if the discrimination continued much longer.

In 1973, the peak of the behind-the-scenes legal challenges to the then single-sex Rhodes Scholarships, I was also the president of the formerly all-male Spee Club. And I am thrilled that it voted to admit women last year, before the new Harvard policy with its attendant sanctions was announced (albeit then fully aware of the University's strong opposition to gender-restrictive clubs, and the Dean's moral jawboning backed by serious threats to do something about them).

The Spee Club has long prided itself for being perhaps the most progressive final club, consistently the first to champion a more diverse membership—and diverse in virtually all dimensions before this last and critical one. Indeed, fellow graduate members of the club had long advocated women membership; it was the undergraduates who until recently largely opposed it. They are now, by my own observation, delighted.

Whether most graduates came to our inclusive views simply because of the natural sentiments of fathers with daughters, because we came to realize that the club conveyed lifelong benefits and privileges (albeit modest ones) that should not morally be restricted by gender, because we came to realize, like Harvard itself, that diversity made us stronger, and frankly far more fun and interesting, or because we simply recognized that the alleged separation of the clubs from Harvard was a self-serving and obvious fiction, and that their campus presence is in-your-face and significant for all students—most of us have been strongly supportive of the change. I have little doubt that Spee members John F. and Robert F. Kennedy would be proud of their old club too—and I suspect they each might also have rallied to the courageous stance of Harvard's president, Drew Faust.

Some day, most Harvard final club alumni will look back and wonder how we could accept gender discriminatory membership for so long. Our colleagues at Yale and Princeton, in somewhat similar institutions, made these transitions some time ago and undergraduate life for members and nonmembers alike has only improved.


Elliot Gerson ’74 is the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust and Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute. The views expressed here are his alone.

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