News Analysis: With Sanctions Goal, Admins Shift from Sexual Assault Prevention

Administrators have shifted their focus from sexual assault to gender exclusivity as a rationale for their unprecedented involvement in undergraduate social life.
By Graham W. Bishai

The all-male Fly Club.
The all-male Fly Club. By Nicholas M. Sertl

In the spring of 2016, as college administrators met with leaders of unrecognized single-gender social organizations, and ultimately crafted a policy penalizing membership in them, their reasoning for doing so seemed straightforward: combating what University President Drew G. Faust months earlier called a “troubling” climate of sexual assault at Harvard.

In March of that year, a University-wide task force on sexual assault prevention specifically called for a policy to address the role of final clubs in sexual assault, drawing attention to a correlation between final clubs and sexual violence.

“Effective response to unwelcome sexual conduct on the Harvard campus must include a serious and sustained examination of the contribution of Final Clubs to the problem,” the report read.

Two months later, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana seemingly did just that, announcing a policy that, beginning with the class of 2021, bars members of the social groups from receiving recommendations for certain post-graduate fellowships and holding leadership positions in student organizations.

But early this month, a set of recommendations for implementing Harvard’s historic sanctions on single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations departed from earlier administrative pronouncements about the sanctions. The committee tasked with formulating the recommendations wrote, in no uncertain terms, that sexual assault did not loom large in the policy’s formation.

“While that behavior and the environment that encourages it are wholly unacceptable, they are not the sole nor even the primary reason for the policy,” the report reads.

Particularly, the committee took issue with what they called “press reports and claims by students and members of [final clubs and Greek organizations] that the intent of the policy was to address sexual assault.”

This rhetorical about-face—from sexual assault as the ostensible impetus behind the policy to claims that it did not figure prominently at all—came after staunch opposition from final clubs and certain students and faculty. As preventing sexual assault became a less compelling argument for penalizing members of social groups, administrators have shifted their public focus to gender inclusivity as a rationale for their unprecedented involvement in undergraduate social life.

A Damning Report

The task force on sexual assault prevention devoted three of its 20 total pages to final clubs.

“We… do not see any solution that does not involve addressing the disturbing practical and cultural implications [the clubs] present in undergraduate life,” the report reads.

English professor Louis Menand, an outspoken supporter of the sanctions, said the task force’s report was “ultimately the trigger for the formation of the policy.”

“To that extent, concern about [sexual assault] was in the minds of the people who formulated the policy,” he said.

One of the report’s “key recommendations” was that University President Drew G. Faust have the College formulate a plan to address issues surrounding final clubs and compel them to drop their gender-exclusive practices.

Central to the report’s condemnation of the clubs was their finding that 47 percent of senior women at the College “participating in the Final Clubs” reported experiencing some form of “nonconsensual sexual contact” while in college. According to the report, this represented the highest figure among any student group queried in a University-wide survey.

Almost immediately, that figure in particular and the report’s claims linking sexual assault to final clubs in general were questioned. Most notably, the 226-year old Porcellian Club commissioned a professional statistical analysis of the task force’s report that purported to disprove its claims linking sexual assault to final clubs.

“All of the correlations between membership or participation in these groups and nonconsensual sexual contact are most likely statistically indistinguishable,” wrote Jora B. Stixrud, the economist hired by the club.

“In short,” she added, “There is no statistical evidence to support the singling out of Final Clubs as opposed to other student organizations.”

In the face of criticism, the University has stood by the numbers.

“The recommendations of the Task Force were based not only on the AAU sexual conduct survey, but also on the extensive qualitative data gathered at scores of meetings with Harvard undergraduate,” Chair of the task force for sexual assault prevention and response and former University Provost Steven E. Hyman, who led the task force for sexual assault prevention wrote in an emailed statement responding to Stixrud’s report.

Questioning the Rationale

When Khurana and Faust announced the sanctions in an email to Harvard affiliates in May, they focused primarily on gender equity in explaining the historic penalties. Though Khurana had been meeting with club affiliates before the release of the report, Faust did include some mention of sexual assault as an issue “related” to gender equity.

“We must address deeply rooted gender attitudes, and the related issues of sexual misconduct, points underscored by the work of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault,” Faust wrote in May.

Early opposition to the policy focused on what detractors called its conflation of sexual assault, gender equity, and social exclusivity.

Three days after the announcement of the policy, hundreds of Harvard women, many of whom were affiliated with sanctioned organizations, flooded Harvard Yard in protest.

Bearing signs that read “Sexual Assault is Not Our Fault,” chief among the women’s concerns were that their groups faced collateral damage from a College effort to prevent sexual assault.

Members of all-female social groups gather to protest the College's penalties on members of single-gender social groups, including sororities and female final clubs, in May 2016.
Members of all-female social groups gather to protest the College's penalties on members of single-gender social groups, including sororities and female final clubs, in May 2016. By Thomas W. Franck

“We’ve arrived at the point that to prevent sexual assault, the number one plan is to prevent sorority sisters from becoming Rhodes scholars,” Fly Club graduate president Richard T. Porteus ’78 said in the wake of the announcement.

Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19, a member of sexual assault prevention organization Our Harvard Can Do Better, speaking in a personal capacity, said the issues were interrelated.

“I think there’s been a refusal or a reluctance at least, to consider the multifaceted interactions between various different forms of discrimination and exclusion and violence on campus,” she said.

A New Focus

In a September 2016 editorial that directly referenced the women's protests in May, Faust focused on her view that single-gender groups perpetuate structural barriers to women in higher education.

“I want Harvard to nurture the belief that you never should settle for second-class citizenship—or for an identity fashioned out of the arbitrary exclusion of others,” Faust wrote.

Following the submission of a Faculty motion that aimed to overturn the sanctions, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences also weighed in on the motivations behind the policy in a series of heated Faculty meetings in the fall and spring of this academic year.

In a contentious December meeting, Computer Science professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83, who co-signed the motion opposing the sanctions, said she found herself “ask[ing] what problem are we solving.”

“The first answer was that this was about sexual assault... But surely those of us in this room and members of the community can come up with a better answer to sexual assault than sanctioning single gender organizations, for a problem that is in nearly all manifestations a co-ed problem,” Seltzer said.

Even Menand, despite his outspoken support for the sanctions, shared skepticism that sexual assault was the best focus for the social policy, calling it a “mistake.”

“It was a mistake, in my opinion, to tie the social group policy to issues the policy cannot address, for example, the problem of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a felony. Do we really want to be suggesting that male final clubs are criminal organizations?” Menand said.

Today, administrators are reticent to acknowledge sexual assault as a major inspiration for the policy. In the 46-page report released this month by a committee tasked with recommending how the college implement the policy, the phrase “sexual assault” appears just three times.

In a March interview, asked specifically whether incorporating the issue of sexual assault into the policy development was a mistake, Khurana insisted gender equity had always been central to the policy’s formation.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. By Megan M. Ross

“I think that this policy has been and has been since the beginning really rooted in the idea that we need an undergraduate experience that is free from gender discrimination,” Khurana said.

Pressed specifically on the issue of sexual assault, Khurana said “I do believe gender equity across our academic, social environments help contribute to a better student culture, a better Harvard culture, that reduces the likelihood that people’s bodily integrity is violated.”

The administration’s new rationale—one which focuses almost entirely on gender equity, and not sexual assault, as the motivating factor behind the sanctions—is one some faculty feel is more reasonable.

“There is one reason and only one reason to support the policy, and that is to affirm our opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender. That is all we are doing and I think all we have scope to do,” Menand said in December.

—Staff writer Graham W. Bishai can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBishai.

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