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A faculty committee’s recommendation that social groups at Harvard be “phased out” by May 2022 has some final club graduate leaders considering legal action against the University.
The committee’s report, released Wednesday, proposed that Harvard completely ban student membership in “fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations,” including co-ed groups. The recommended action, which University President Drew G. Faust could accept in early fall 2017, would replace an existing and less severe policy penalizing membership in the groups.
At least two all-male final clubs—including the Fly Club—had previously retained legal counsel to explore options to challenge that policy, which the College unveiled in May 2016 and which bars members of single-gender groups from receiving certain post-graduate fellowships and serving as leaders of recognized student groups or as captains of varsity teams. Given the increased severity of the committee’s recommendations, the graduate leaders of these and other clubs now say they are one step closer to legal action should Faust approve the new policy.
Fly Club graduate president Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 said he thought “things seem headed” in the direction of litigation, though he noted that it is still “too soon to tell.”
Douglas W. Sears ’69, former graduate board president of the Fox Club, wrote in an email that he thinks the proposed social group ban will be “heavily litigated in the courts.”
Faculty will have a chance to review the committee’s recommendations and provide feedback until the early fall. After that, the committee will present its recommendations—slated to take effect with the Class of 2022—first to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and then to Faust.
The existing policy drew intense criticism from faculty, students, and outside groups alike, prompting several showdowns at Faculty meetings as some charged that the policy violated students’ freedom of association.
Legal experts have previously said that Harvard would likely be able to successfully defend a policy forbidding students from joining final clubs in court. When Faust first announced the creation of the faculty committee, she said the body would seek to craft a legally viable policy.
“Ultimately, I want to be able to ensure that this policy is not going to get us sued instantly, is legal, is something that the governing boards feel is acceptable to implement,” she said in January.
The idea of banning social groups from college campuses is not new—Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and Williams College all prohibited undergraduate participation in fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations in recent years.
Faculty committee members specifically referenced the policies of Bowdoin and Williams in their report, writing that “it is unlikely that Harvard can improve upon the policies of these peer institutions.”
Cambridge attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, hired as legal counsel to the Fly in September 2016, said he intends to thoroughly investigate the legality of the faculty committee’s recommendations in the coming months.
“The question is whether it’s more or less vulnerable legally than the predecessor version,” Silverglate said. “I don’t know yet. [But] from a moral and institutional point of view I think that it represents even more overreach than the original Khurana, Faust version, and exhibits a contempt for student autonomy that is breathtaking.”
Porteus said he thought Harvard could face lawsuits from several groups in addition to the final clubs. He listed the national chapters of Greek organizations and civil rights watchdog groups as potential plaintiffs.
“This is an affront to anyone who really cares about the quality of a Harvard education and the intellectual freedoms maintained by the Harvard community,” he said. “So you have a number of different groups [that] are carefully following developments.”
The recommendations provoked immediate backlash from some Greek organizations on Wednesday and Thursday. Both the North-American Interfraternity Conference—a national umbrella group for several Harvard fraternities—and the Harvard chapter of fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon issued public statements denouncing the proposed social group ban.
“We are disappointed to see that this committee has chosen to dismiss the concerns of so many Harvard College students who have benefited from being members of a social organization, and once again overlooked the positive impacts that Greek life can make in the lives of students,” reads Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s statement, posted to the group’s Facebook page.
In an interview Thursday, Undergraduate Council Vice President Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18 said the proposed policy completely “takes away personal responsibility and choice” from College students—and that it is unlikely to be effective.
“It’s simply going to either force [the clubs] underground or literally dry out any semblance of social life on campus,” Khansarinia said. “It’s really not the right way to go about this.”
He and UC President Yasmin Z. Sachee ’18 plan to issue a statement outlining their views on the recommended social group ban sometime in the next few days.
Several Harvard student groups, including the Harvard Republican Club and the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative, also published statements condemning the change.
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.
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