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Harvard’s recently-announced actions against single-gender clubs have not enjoyed a smooth reception. Alumni, single-gender groups, and national media outlets across the country have publicly questioned whether the policies are a step too far in the College’s efforts to improve undergraduate social life. A recent private communication has added another person to Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s list of detractors: Harry R. Lewis ’68, a former Dean of the College and one of Khurana’s predecessors.
In a private letter from Lewis dated May 11 and obtained by The Crimson, Lewis, a computer science professor, excoriated the policy—which, starting with the Class of 2021, will prohibit members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and final clubs from holding leadership positions and receiving College endorsement for top fellowships. Lewis copied University President Drew G. Faust on the letter.
While Lewis’s letter allowed that some final clubs were “noxious” and complimented Khurana on his “determination to rein them in,” he argued the new policy was unprecedented and could lead to harmful consequences.
“[T]he good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about noncomformity,” wrote Lewis, who declined to comment for this article.
In an emailed statement from College spokesperson Rachael Dane, Khurana wrote that he was “appreciative” of Lewis’s letter.
“The College will share his message with the advisory committee, once formed, to help inform their important work of implementing the College’s new policy for unrecognized single-gender social organizations at Harvard,” Khurana wrote in the statement.
Quoting Khurana’s argument that leaders of athletic teams and recognized student groups should “share in the College’s responsibility of fostering a non-discriminatory culture at Harvard,” Lewis argued that enforcing penalties for students who failed to meet that requirement would be unprecedented.
“It seems to me that you are breaking dangerous new ground in articulating this standard and in interpreting it to disqualify students from captaincies and leadership positions,” Lewis wrote, adding that he could “find no precedent in the Handbook for Students or any other faculty legislation” for such a move.
Lewis also expressed doubt that “the Faculty would accept your assertion that student leaders must ‘share in the College’s responsibility’ to do anything beyond existing regulations of student behavior, were that put to a vote.”
Referencing a University-wide task force report that lambasted final clubs for statistics that linked final clubs to sexual assault, Lewis criticized Khurana for subsequently “broadening focus from sexual assault at some clubs to the discriminatory membership policies of a large number of clubs, many of them otherwise innocuous.”
Echoing a criticism many students have used against the policy, Lewis wrote that the reasoning behind the policy could be a slippery slope to further sanctions and “chill the activism of students in causes that might also be considered noncompliant with Harvard standards.”
“For example, advocacy for a religion that does not allow women to be full participants, or a political party that opposes affirmative action,” Lewis wrote. “Such groups are excluded from your mandate, but only as a matter of your discretion.”
Lewis’s stance on final clubs is not new. During the late 1990s when he was at the helm of College leadership, he was known for arguing that the Dean of the College should not be the cruise director of campus social life.
Rather than pursue the proposed sanctions, Lewis argued that administrators should stick to the principle that “bad behavior off-campus can be actionable.”
“Students’ membership in organizations is their own business, not the College’s. The College responds to improper acts, not memberships,” Lewis wrote. “That principle is an honorable descendant of President Pusey’s defense against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s guilt-by-association attacks on Harvard faculty.”
Ending his letter, Lewis urged Khurana to reconsider the unprecedented sanctions.
“I hope you can find a way to pull back from the sweeping statement you have issued and adopt instead a more targeted approach to the problems presented by the Final Clubs.”
—Check thecrimson.com for more updates.
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