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Letter to the Editor: Final Clubs, 25 Years Later

By Juliette N. Kayyem

To the Editor:

Next week, I will be celebrating my 25th college reunion here at Harvard. It isn't too hard to get there; Harvard has been part of my and my husband's professional life for a good chunk of it as faculty. We met on the river at a party while in college and we now live in Central Square. Nine blocks in 25 years!

I came to Harvard as the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant family. My parents demanded we work hard in school. When people ask me why I went to Harvard, I can't remember if I even had a choice. My father waited for the mail to arrive that day; opened the letter, though it wasn't addressed to him; and a few months later I was at Canaday.

The world, it seemed then, was ours for the taking. It seemed then, and still does sometimes now, that we were unstoppable. But, I remember hearing about these Final Clubs as a new student; I did not know what they were, but they suggested to people like me that even though I thought I had made it in, there was still another door to cross. Exclusive membership based on criteria that were both sexist and inexplicable, they seemed outdated even then. But their existence and Harvard nexus were a statement that there was still, yet, another Harvard unobtainable to those who thought we had obtained it.

The irony, of course, is that then those most likely to join a Club were those whose access to Harvard in the first place may have been more preordained than not. It is only matched in irony by Finals Clubs adherents today that say that somehow Harvard is denigrating their right to association when that has been what these clubs have done to a great majority of the student body for a long time.

And I say this not simply because of the nostalgia that is overcoming my class in the buildup to our 25th, but because we are returning in the midst of a major debate about what Harvard is meant to be. There will be others who discuss the legality of the Final Clubs decision by the University or whether women are being manipulated to raise the flag of outrage to support the male clubs so they can retain their own. But, for me, it is worth raising the point that is too often forgotten in these debates: that 25 years ago, it was already clear that exclusive social clubs are inconsistent with the belief, held by so many of us who arrive here from varied and diverse backgrounds, that Harvard's doors are open and inclusive. Institutions move, albeit slowly, almost as slow as 9 blocks in 25 years.

Juliette N. Kayyem '91 graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995, and served as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2010. A faculty member at the Kennedy School, she is the author of, most recently, "Security Mom."

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