UPDATED: May 8, 2016, at 3:01 a.m.
Starting with Harvard’s Class of 2021, undergraduate members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will be banned from holding athletic team captaincies and leadership positions in all recognized student groups. They will also be ineligible for College endorsement for top fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Ending months of speculation, University President Drew G. Faust announced the sweeping changes in an email to undergraduates Friday morning. Accepting Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s recommendations—his first public proposals to regulate unrecognized single gender organizations—Faust framed the new policy as a matter of necessity.
“Although the fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are not formally recognized by the College, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values,” Faust wrote. “The College cannot ignore these organizations if it is to advance our shared commitment to broadening opportunity and making Harvard a campus for all of its students.”
Formed in response to the recommendations of a University-wide report on sexual assault prevention, the policy mirrors an idea that Khurana floated at a behind-closed-doors meeting with final club leadership in April.
While administrators have criticized single-gender social clubs, particularly male final clubs, for statistics purportedly linking them with an elevated risk of sexual assault, Faust and Khurana’s messages focused primarily on the membership selection practices of unrecognized single gender groups.
“[T]he discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances,” Khurana wrote. “The most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men. In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.”
Khurana framed his decision as a logical evolution in Harvard’s “long and complex history of grappling with gender discrimination,” referencing Harvard’s integration with Radcliffe College and writing that “[i]n every era, change has come slowly and often with fierce opposition.”
“[The] unrecognized single-gender social organizations have lagged behind in ways that are untenable in the 21st century,” Khurana added.
Although current undergraduates as well as members of the incoming Class of 2020 will be exempt from the new policy, the change is sure to affect large swaths of the undergraduate population once it is enacted.
In February 2015, for instance, the Cambridge Panhellenic Council’s president estimated that 400 women—roughly six percent of the current undergraduate population—were involved in Harvard’s sororities. Furthermore, a number of undergraduates are members of Harvard’s unrecognized fraternities, male final clubs, female final clubs, or other unrecognized single-gender organizations such as the all-male Oak Club.
A yet-to-be-appointed committee of students, faculty, and administrators will craft the enforcement strategy for the broad proposal, likely a difficult task given that many unrecognized social clubs do not publicize their membership.
Khurana hinted that unrecognized single-gender social organizations that choose to adopt gender neutral policies and open selection processes could gain access to “certain Harvard facilities, among other possibilities to be determined by the advisory group.”
This is not the first time the College has attempted to pressure the clubs to adopt gender-neutral policies. In his letter, Khurana referenced a 1984 ultimatum to go co-ed from administrators, which clubs responded to by disaffiliation from the University. Khurana called that decision a choice “to maintain… discriminatory practices.”
Referencing the recent rise of sororities and female final clubs—the first of which, the Bee, was founded in 1991—Khurana wrote that these groups were “an effort to counter the male dominated dynamics of Harvard’s social scene.”
“Ultimately, all of these unrecognized single-gender social organizations are at odds with Harvard College’s educational philosophy and its commitment to a diverse living and learning experience,” he added.
While Faust emphasized that students could “decide for themselves” whether to join a single-gender social club, she defended the College’s decision to bar club members from captaincies, leadership positions, and fellowships.
“Captains of intercollegiate sports teams and leaders of organizations funded, sponsored, or recognized by Harvard College in a very real sense represent the College.They benefit from its resources. They operate under its name,” she wrote. “Especially as it seeks to break down structural barriers to an effectively inclusive campus, the College is right to ensure that the areas in which it provides resources and endorsement advance and reinforce its values of non-discrimination.”
Khurana meanwhile, reiterated his stance that the groups are “antithetical to our institutional values,” adding that “Harvard has the obligation to establish the general regulations and standards governing Harvard students, faculty, and staff that are consistent with our educational philosophy.”
The announcement comes at the end of a particularly tumultuous year for Harvard’s single-gender social organizations. In the fall, administrators repeatedly put pressure on all-male clubs to go co-ed, with the previously all-male Spee and the Fox clubs ultimately extending membership to some women.
Meanwhile, the College made efforts to plan College-sanctioned social events and revamp House life. In October, Faust allocated a “lump sum” to the College from her discretionary funds for the purpose of creating more open social events. Khurana used some of the funds to bankroll a party planned by women’s groups on campus. In his letter Friday, Khurana wrote that he would “continue to invest in social alternatives and increase its social programming budgets.”
This spring, the Task Force for the Prevention of Sexual Assault’s report upbraided the clubs for espousing “a culture often inimical to Harvard College.” The report found that 47 percent of surveyed senior women at the College who had “participated” in final clubs reported having experienced nonconsensual sexual contact during their undergraduate years, “ half again” the average of 31 percent for all senior women. One of the report’s six “key recommendations” advocated “address[ing] the distinctive problems presented by the Final Clubs and other unrecognized single-sex social organizations.” In her announcement today, Faust wrote that she was “mindful in particular about concerns that unsupervised social spaces can present for sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse.”
After the Task Force report’s release, Khurana held multiple meetings with undergraduate and graduate leaders of final clubs as well as a meeting with undergraduate leaders of Greek organizations. At those meetings, attendants reported that Khurana remained coy, with many coming away frustrated by what they deemed a lack of specificity from the Dean of the College.
Additionally, many final clubs worried that the College could consider barring undergraduate enrollment in the groups, an option Khurana refused to rule out last semester and has kept as a possibility for the future.
Leaders from three clubs—the all-male Porcellian Club, the all-male Fly Club, and the all-female Sablière Society—publicly criticized the administration for their dealings with the clubs, though Sablière leaders expressed support for the College’s aim of “moving towards gender inclusivity.”
Despite one meeting with undergraduate leaders of fraternities and sororities, those organizations have largely been left out of conversations with administrators. At their meeting, Greek organizations were not issued a deadline to tell Khurana whether they were planning on going co-ed, something he did ask of final club leaders.
While members of single-gender social clubs will not be affected by the policies until the Class of 2021 arrives on campus in 2017, the move could potentially prompt some clubs to go co-ed. The policy could also spell an end to years of steady growth in the number of students rushing Greek organizations.
Khurana’s letter and Faust’s email left the door open for further sanctions against the clubs down the road, including a much-feared option similar to that pursued in 2014 at Amherst College, which would bar simultaneous membership in both the College and single-gender social organizations.
Khurana suggested that the new policy should be formally reviewed three years after its enactment “to assess whether additional steps should be considered and implemented.”
Accepting this recommendation in her letter, Faust asked Khurana to provide a report at the end of each of the next three academic years providing “the College’s assessment of the role the single-gender social organizations are playing in College life and whether the College should be considering any further action to advance our core institutional values.”
—Check thecrimson.com for more updates.
—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.