It began with an invitation sealed with an animal head pressed in wax. A scrawling hand instructed me to don jacket and tie and arrive at a building down Mount Auburn Street at half past six. Inside I made feeble attempts at small talk and plucked chicken wellingtons from silver trays.
Another invitation wormed its way under my door. Why me? I thought.
The second event, lunch at the estate of an ancient Boston bloodline, made clear why I had been chosen: I found my name at the table set aside for prospective conquests. After lunch, my peers—“punches”—swarmed the patio and glad-handed club members between sips of Bloody Marys. I stood to the side with an arthritic Beagle, which, warming to me, humped my chinos until the owner pried it from my leg.
In that moment, I could only think how ridiculous this scene appeared—all my classmates striving to outplay, outshake, outhump one another for a place in this strange, cold constellation. I emailed a senior member to withdraw my name from consideration.
A few months later, the same member invited me to drinks in the clubhouse. The power of the place pulled me back. Had I made a mistake in refusing this august social order? The senior handed me a series of gin fizzes and introduced me to other members and their guests. Later he gave his fair-haired friends a practiced look and they ushered us out into the Square, laughing and blowing smoke into the night.
I found myself in the senior’s room. He pushed me to the bed. The horizontality triggered instant vertigo and bile flooded my throat. Shoving past him, I jumped for the door and the hallway bathroom. Locked in a stall, draped over the toilet, my time at Harvard drained to a two-year low. But that night I was lucky, and the senior marched me briskly out.
Last month, Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 withdrew his motion that sought to undercut the Administration’s proposed social club sanctions in response to the announcement that a faculty subcommittee will review the penalties. Lewis is right to point out that the sanctions—which include bans on leadership positions and recommendations for prestigious fellowships—demand rethinking. Indiscriminate targeting of all single-gender groups fails to match the nuances of Harvard’s undergraduate social life. But this doesn’t mean final clubs should escape criticism.
Lewis has asked for clarification as to “what ‘problems’ need to be solved.” Let me suggest some problems from personal experience: sexual assault, a culture of exclusivity, discrimination. Understanding how these aspects of the clubs interrelate is not absurd—in fact, it explains why the organizations are so harmful.
If the College adopts sanctions similar to those that have been proposed, students of the future will be forced to consider the sacrifices that club membership will require. And while such regulations appear revolutionary, they simply bring to the surface a choice we all must make about how to invest our precious, finite time at college. Will we choose to hold social and economic advantage over our peers? And if we want to be leaders on campus, can exclusion for the sake of exclusion be compatible with building community?
These questions don't leave us when we graduate. In Silicon Valley, making more money in my first year than my dad did after three decades of teaching, I couldn’t understand why playing by Harvard’s rules had left me so profoundly adrift. I had bagged the most exclusive job offer I could find as my classmates wished me luck with envious smiles. But perched in a glass tower in front of a glass screen, I knew I had betrayed the instinct that steered me away from final clubs in the first place. The allure of being set apart from others, of holding on to something few could possess, had marooned me among palm trees and Tesla SUVs.
I needed to imagine an alternative to Silicon Valley and get closer to issues of justice and equality. I quit my job and headed to North Carolina, a swing state mired in anti-LGBTQ legislation and racist voting restrictions.
Community organizing brought me to the doors of the wealthiest and poorest in Appalachia. I bloomed and burned each day with visions of what we could do to make all these lives richer, and I tied myself to the hope that our work could bring that day closer.
It is time that we imagine an alternative for Harvard. Our current system is broken: we teach Harvard students that “success” so often means committing social and sexual violence, and then we scratch our heads when we visit these sins upon each other on campus and after graduation. A girl in my House was raped. A kid in the Quad told me that because he alone in his blocking group wasn’t in a club, he would always be pitied for being second-class. We must do better. A safer and more inclusive university is not beyond the horizon. The most exclusive club is open to all.
Isaac Dayno ’15, a former House Committee Chair in Kirkland House, lives in Philadelphia.