Harvard’s next president will be unable to easily alter the College’s policy on single-gender social organizations, limiting the authority of the University’s top office on one of the most contentious campus issues in recent memory.
The Harvard Corporation—not University President Drew G. Faust alone—made the final call about the future of undergraduate social life at Harvard, ending more than a year of debate about the policy. At a meeting Monday in Loeb House, the Corporation voted to maintain the controversial policy Faust first announced in May 2016.
That policy bars members of single-gender social groups—beginning with current freshmen—from holding campus leadership positions, serving as captains of varsity athletic teams, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious post-graduate fellowships. Sticking with the policy was one of three options recommended to Faust by a committee tasked with reviewing the sanctions.
While the policy hasn’t changed since its inception, the people calling the shots have. The Corporation’s vote Monday places responsibility for the policy—originally an initiative spearheaded by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana—in the hands of the 13-member body to ensure continuity amid the uncertainty of a presidential transition.
The decision to delimit the president’s authority represents a departure from the Corporation’s traditional patterns of behavior—and illustrates that the body’s power is virtually unchecked, according to major donor Peter L. Malkin ’55.
“I think that there’s no limitation on the power of the Corporation other than the Constitution of the United States,” Malkin, who has also served on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, said. “So I think it’s an involvement in regulation of student life that’s unusual for the Corporation, but I think it’s clearly not ultra vires—it’s not outside their authority.”
In a letter to Harvard affiliates Tuesday afternoon announcing the decision, Faust and senior fellow of the Corporation William F. Lee ’72 outlined the rationale behind maintaining the policy and made the case for the Corporation’s enhanced role—arguing that the Corporation was poised to consider “legal considerations,” alumni relations, and “the responsibility of the University to meet the non-academic needs of its student body and to define the fundamental character of the College itself.”
“Each of these considerations implicates the fiduciary responsibilities of the board—all the more so, at this moment of presidential transition, when the community has an interest in being assured that the decision announced today is not contingent on the occupant of Massachusetts Hall,” Lee and Faust wrote.
The Corporation will review the policy after five years, when members will present a report to the Faculty assessing its efficacy. Whoever becomes Harvard’s next president in July will have no choice but to oversee its implementation for the first few years of his or her tenure.
Harvey A. Silverglate, a Cambridge area lawyer who represents the all-male Fly Club, said he doesn’t pity Harvard’s next president.
“It shows a lack of a respect for whoever that is going to be tapped to be the new president,” he said. “I can’t imagine that a new president of Harvard would be particularly happy assuming office with this hornet's nest the first thing to greet me.”
But the presidential search committee has previously indicated it is likely to choose someone who will embrace the challenge.
Lee said in an interview last month that he expects the search committee’s pick to share Faust’s views on single-gender social organizations.
“I'm quite certain that whoever we pick is going to make the issue of diversity and inclusion and the issue of Harvard being a place that is open, accepting, and comfortable for everybody we bring here—it's going to be one of the priorities of the new president," Lee said. "If that's true, then it’s very unlikely that they’re going to have a radically different view than we have on things like the single-gender organizations."
All 15 members of the search committee—composed of the Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers—took their current governing board positions under Faust, who said at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting that she considers efforts to reduce the influence of single-gender social organizations a cornerstone of her legacy.
“As I approach the end of my presidency, I see one of the central emphases and commitments of my nearly 11 years in office as the expansion of access, the emphasis on inclusion and belonging,” Faust told faculty members.
"I see the consideration of the issues surrounding the [unrecognized single-gender social organizations] as very much within that movement toward opening opportunity and eliminating arbitrary exclusion,” she added.
With implementing the policy already on the agenda, changing undergraduate social life may inevitably be part of the next president’s legacy as well.
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahYared.
—Graham W. Bishai contributed reporting.