Harvard’s Social Experiment

By Jalin P. Cunningham and Ignacio Sabate, Crimson Staff Writers
By Nathan A. Cummings

UPDATED: May 25, 2016, at 1:04 p.m.

It’s a Friday night at Harvard, and hundreds of students are dancing to the live band. Drawn by the music, free admission, and promise of a different social experience, undergraduates fill a large tent in the Science Center Plaza. It’s not an unusual sight on most college campuses, but at Harvard the evening represented something new.

Sponsored by College women’s groups, the “[BLANK] Party” aimed to foster a “more inclusive, open social scene.” Although the event was planned by and for undergraduates, in many ways it represented an ideal social space in the minds of Harvard administrators. The party was completely open to all undergraduates regardless of identity or organizational affiliation, and took place on campus under the direction of the University.

Students dance at [BLANK] Party, a collaborative effort by several women’s groups on campus to create an inclusive social gathering. The name encouraged a free interpretation of affiliation and dress code.
Students dance at [BLANK] Party, a collaborative effort by several women’s groups on campus to create an inclusive social gathering. The name encouraged a free interpretation of affiliation and dress code. By Isabel G. Alexander

Indeed, the very top of Harvard’s administration helped finance the party. University President Drew G. Faust specifically gave money to Harvard College to fund events—including the [BLANK] Party—that offer alternative and “safe” social spaces.

But at the same time that students were dancing under the lights in the Science Center Plaza, many others were gathering off campus in some of the College’s single-gender unrecognized social organizations—where alcohol is less subject to Harvard regulations. Beyond the control of administrators, and subject to the individual clubs’ guest policies, for many years these groups have had outsized influence on undergraduate social life.

This year the College has taken greater control over undergraduate social life at Harvard, and where it takes place. Administrators have cracked down on final clubs, fraternities, and sororities, and implemented sweeping sanctions targeting a culture they say is conducive to excessive drinking and sexual assault. But alongside punishment, administrators have offered incentives to promote their vision for inclusive and safer social spaces on campus. Their actions aim to bolster social life, but some people said the University has gone too far.

Putting Money on the Table

At most of the nation’s colleges and universities, “social space” is seldom a phrase uttered by administrators or students. But at Harvard over the past year, the words have become inescapable.

Driven by concerns over sexual assault, backlash over the policies of off campus social organizations—particularly the College’s historically all-male final clubs—and a new dean on a mission to fundamentally recenter the undergraduate social experience, social space was at the forefront of campus discourse and administrators’ agendas over the past year.

Administrators have been highly involved in promoting social spaces that fit their vision for undergraduate life. Along with the [BLANK] Party, the College has supported a number of other events, including an undergraduate-wide Halloween party, a five-floor party in Winthrop House, and a series of pre-Yardfest parties. All were backed with Harvard money, open to all students, and free of charge.

Additionally, in Cabot and Adams Houses, staff have designated spaces—like Cabot’s fittingly-themed “aquarium” (the House’s mascot is a fish)— for students to book their own events. Some Houses introduced streamlined and expedited party registration processes. Employees at the Office of Student Life also began tailoring programming at the Cambridge Queen’s Head pub, a space below Annenberg Hall, specifically for undergraduates.

Harvard College is increasing the money it spends in a bid to re-engineer social life. Over the past two years, the College Dean’s Office has increased funding for undergraduate social activities by 73 percent, with another 15 percent increase budgeted for the 2016-2017 academic year. That comes as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences undergoes a more than $1 billion dollar effort to extensively renovate the Houses.

Rakesh Khurana, dean of the College and Faculty Dean of Cabot House, has often spoken of recentering social life in the Houses and increasing “inclusivity.”

“One of the things that’s really been phenomenal is that with this vision of an inclusive social environment that our students have helped define and aspire to, we have been able to mobilize resources,” Khurana said.

Social space has also been a top priority among leaders of the Undergraduate Council, the College’s student government. In November, the six undergraduates campaigning for the Council’s top two spots focused heavily on the subject during the presidential race. The election’s victors, Shaiba Rather ’17 and Daniel V. Banks ’17, have made creating more inclusive social spaces a priority of their “Open Harvard” platform. Already, they have sponsored a number of open parties, including a new initiative called Club 1636 that looks to open local nightlife to undergraduates under 21.

But while the College has advanced some forms of socializing, it has deliberately criticized others that don’t conform to its vision.

Throughout the year, Khurana, in a series of private meetings, has pressured the College’s unrecognized single-gender organizations to go co-ed in. Just weeks ago, he implemented a new policy barring members of those organizations from holding varsity captaincies, club leadership positions, or prestigious fellowships beginning with the incoming Class of 2021. The change represents a new frontier in relations between the College and its unrecognized social groups, but a continuation of Khurana’s efforts to bring social life in line with his interpretation of the College’s mission.

‘A Checkered Past

The College’s strengthened effort to control social spaces and guide their use is in keeping with a specific vision for undergraduate social life, one that emphasizes safety, regulation, and inclusivity in students’ interactions. While discussions about social space on campus took place since Khurana’s tenure began last fall, this past year has seen a clearer articulation of the College’s vision and a quickened pace of change spurred by heightened attention on sexual assault and social exclusivity.

This September, Harvard released the results of a sexual conduct climate survey that Faust said revealed a “deeply troubling” prevalence of sexual assault on campus. The survey found 31 percent of senior undergraduate females experienced some form of “nonconsensual sexual contact” during their time at the College. It also found heightened rates of assault for senior undergraduate females involved with unrecognized social organizations.

Months after the survey results’ release, a University task force issued a related set of recommendations on ways to reduce sexual assault. Faust took up the recommendations, which included a number of College-specific proposals that addressed the subject of social space head on.

The task force wrote in their report that, “Space — who controls it, what is allowed within it, who finds it attractive — shapes the possibilities for social interaction.” The report praised the [BLANK] Party and Annenberg Halloween Party as models of events that create a “shared campus culture.”

The report recommended mandating yearly sexual assault prevention trainings for all students, a measure that this year was piloted in some Houses and by the UC. The report also suggests a shift in alcohol policy to more closely regulate hard liquor consumption, with one recommendation specifically proposing that administrators institute policies to “discourage consumption.”

Along with policy changes, the report urged physical modifications, “[w]here possible,” by decreasing residential entry points so that security officers would be able to better oversee students and assist those in need of help.

The task force report, while proposing safety and regulatory measures within College infrastructure, offered pointed criticisms of the unrecognized final clubs. It called out the clubs as breeding grounds for cultural malaise, and said they were threats to both campus culture and student well-being, and required University attention. Greek organizations were not left out of the fold; the report's authors wrote that these organizations “raise a related set of difficulties.”

In a set of recommendations specifically for the College, the report closely echoed administrators’ comments from months past, advocating an increase in open parties in lieu of unrecognized events, which the report noted are “typically open only to members and selected guests.”

Months later, in Khurana’s letter laying out the recommendations to penalize off-campus, single-gender social organizations, he wrote that, “through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.” In Faust’s letter accepting the proposal, she criticized the clubs for “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.”

Along with the report, moving social life further on campus and increasing inclusivity has been a hallmark of College administrators over the past year. Khurana emphasizes community and inclusion often, both when it comes to social life as well as issues of diversity. Before his tenure as dean officially began, he helped lead the creation of a diversity and inclusion working group, and has begun implementing some of its recommendations.

To that point, Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich said the broader goal of administrative oversight is to encourage students to interact with more diverse groups of people.

"When the College is thinking about how it wants to promote interaction and socializing, a lot of it is around engaging with difference," he said. "Students come here from all different walks of life, have different experiences, are studying different things."

Interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman '67 writes at his desk in the Freshman Dean's Office.
Interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman '67 writes at his desk in the Freshman Dean's Office. By Megan M. Ross

Harvard’s efforts to guide social life mark a change from years past. Interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who has served as a College administrator for many years and was a member of an all-male final club as an undergraduate, said the current generation of students expects more programming.

“When I was in college, I don’t think I looked to Harvard to provide my entertainment at all,” Dingman said. “I think that times have changed.”

However, the recent actions have some questioning if Harvard has overstepped its bounds.

Regulating Social Circles

The decision by Faust and Khurana to sanction members of off campus single-gender social organizations has drawn a sharp wave of criticism and protest.

After the two announced the policy, hundreds of women rallied in front of Massachusetts Hall to protest what they saw as an unjust punishment of female-only spaces. The protest, titled “Hear Her Harvard,” lamented what they said was the likely loss of crucial support networks for women that will come as Khurana’s recommendations are implemented. National Greek organizations also issued statements criticizing the policy.

The new restrictions have touched off a larger debate about the influence of administrators on students social lives, and many undergraduates and alumni have criticized Harvard for going too far in exerting control over how students spend their free time and which groups they associate with.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 issued perhaps the most pointed critique of Khurana’s attempts to curb unrecognized single-gender social life. In a letter to Khurana, Lewis wrote that “Students’ membership in organizations is their own business, not the College’s.”

The Harvard Republicans echoed Lewis’s sentiments in the group’s official response, in which they wrote, “We, as students, do not attempt to regulate your social circles, nor should you ours.”

For Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18, a Cabot House representatives on the UC and a member of the Republican Club, students need to have agency over their own social lives. Indeed, he says, it is an important part of their College development.

“The best social life isn’t one created by a Harvard administrator,” he said, adding that for many students, the best social events are spontaneous and student-driven. “It’s important for students to develop their own social lives.”

The administrative intervention did have its share of supporters, but some of the students most active in combating campus sexual assault said they felt the action was misguided.

Drisana M. Mosaphir ’17, an organizer for anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said she had no qualms with administrative involvement in social life, but that she did not think the new policy specifically addressed activists’ concerns. She added she “felt there was a lack of communication and listening to what survivors have been asking for.”

When Khurana, the architect of sweeping changes to Harvard’s social scene over the past year, was asked to respond to those criticisms he reiterated broader goals.

“The College is committed to promoting an inclusive and robust social experience for students,” he said.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalin.cunningham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

—Staff writer Ignacio Sabate can be reached at ignacio.sabate@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ignacio_sabate.

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