UPDATED: September 24, 2017 at 8:14 p.m.
It was 1947, and Williams College President James P. Baxter III, Harvard class of 1914, was thinking about fraternities. He picked up a pen, grabbed a sheet of lined paper, and recorded his musings in neat, looping cursive.
“Every college administrator at one time or another asks himself just what the social institutions on his campus are worth to their members and to the college as a whole,” he wrote. “The answers will vary, according to the quality of fraternity or club life on the particular campus and according to the point of view of the administrator.”
In his 1947 letter, Baxter (who belonged to a fraternity as an undergraduate) argued in favor of Greek life. But less than twenty years later, the Williams Board of Trustees accepted a recommendation to banish it. In the decades that followed, universities across New England followed Williams’s example.
Now it may be Harvard’s turn.
Seventy years after Baxter put pen to paper, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana is asking himself the exact question the Williams president did.
“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,” Khurana wrote in a letter to students last year.
Today, Khurana and other Harvard administrators hope to limit the scope of the College’s Greek life and, more importantly, of its final clubs. In addition to a handful of fraternities and sororities, Harvard is home to eight traditionally all-male clubs and five historically all-female groups. While most female clubs do not own property, the male clubs—located in mansions in the heart of campus with access to generous budgets—now play an outsize role in undergraduate social life as some of the College’s major party sites. These groups have come under fire in the past few years for exclusive membership practices.
Administrators’ public efforts to reshape Harvard social life began in May 2016, when University President Drew G. Faust announced unprecedented penalties on members of single-gender final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Under that policy, undergraduates—starting with the Class of 2021—who join these groups are barred from campus leadership positions, varsity team captaincies, and certain fellowships.
Recently, though, administrators decided the penalties are not enough: over the summer, a faculty committee recommended instead “phas[ing] out” all social groups from Harvard’s campus by May 2022 in hopes of “improving… the social lives” of Harvard students. Faust will make a final decision on the recommendation this fall.
In its report proposing the ban, the faculty committee specifically cited Williams—as well as Bowdoin College, which banned Greek life in 1997, and Amherst College, which abolished the organizations in 1984—as inspiration. The 22-page document reprinted extracts of the social group policies of Williams and Bowdoin.
“It is unlikely that Harvard can improve on the policies of these peer institutions,” the report reads.
But Harvard confronts challenges not faced by its “peer institutions,” including a far larger student body and a more combative Faculty. And despite vowing to imitate these schools, the College has taken an administrative approach radically different from that of Amherst, Bowdoin, and Williams. Almost every step of the way—in its stated justification for the social group ban, its consultation with constituents beforehand, and its efforts to supply students with alternative social spaces—Harvard has forged its own path.
Nevertheless, visiting Williams, Bowdoin, and Amherst and exploring their archives by day reveals how other schools have enacted a Greek life ban. Wandering the three campuses at night offers a glimpse into life without social groups.
Unlike on Mt. Auburn St., students rove freely in and out of parties. No one stops you at the door, or checks to see if your name is on a list. Students do, sometimes, jockey for a place in line—but only for a donut-eating contest in Bowdoin’s Reed House, or a turn as DJ in Amherst’s Mayo-Smith House.
Is this kind of Friday night the future? At the very least, it offers a glimpse into what might be: Harvard, 2022.
A ‘MISSED OPPORTUNITY’
It is not hard to find fraternity row in Williamstown. Green lawn after green lawn stretch up to meet one white-columned, red-brick mansion after another.
Walk closer, though, and you realize the buildings are denuded of Greek letters. Still closer, and you see the small signs, stuck in the ground or painted on glass doors. Some of these former fraternity houses have been converted to administrative offices: Beta Theta Pi, for instance, is now the “Williams College Office of Admission.” The majority have become undergraduate residential houses, complete with large venues for parties.
These buildings, the only remnants of Greek life on Williams’s campus, bear testament to the time, money, and resources the school devoted to ensuring the continuation of undergraduate social life post-fraternity. If Harvard does enact a ban, administrators will face a similar challenge in filling the social void left by final clubs, fraternities, and sororities.
Williams’s path to banning fraternities began when President Laurence B. Nielsen appointed a committee to “investigate discrimination… in regard to fraternity selection.” Two months later, in a damning document known as the Phillips’ Report, the committee revealed that at least two fraternities had secret “unwritten agreements” with their national chapters to prevent the admission of Jewish students, and at least three fraternities did the same with respect to black students.
That finding ultimately led to the elimination of Greek life. The final 1962 report recommending a fraternity ban referred to the Phillips’ Report, obliquely, as “the handwriting of impending trouble… become visible on the Williams wall.”
Soon after Williams’s trustees accepted the 1962 report, then-President John E. Sawyer formed a new committee and charged it with designing an entirely new residential and social system.
The committee’s first order of business: convincing fraternity alumni to transfer ownership of their houses to the college.
Over the next few months, all but one of Williams’s 15 fraternities agreed to hand over their properties. At Bowdoin, too, administrators took swift action—within two months of its decision to eliminate fraternities, the school purchased the vast majority of its former frat houses.
At Harvard, administrators have made no public plans to buy any of the eight mansions owned by the eight traditionally all-male final clubs—and final club graduate leaders may not be eager to sell. The total assessed value of these properties, located on plots of land in the heart of campus, sums to over $31 million.
Policymakers at Bowdoin and Williams saw the purchase of former fraternity properties—and the immediate establishment of alternative social spaces—as essential to the success of the Greek life ban. In public remarks over dinner in October 1962, Jay B. Angevine, the chairman of the Williams committee that recommended eliminating fraternities, dismissed attendees’ financial concerns.
“Of course it will cost money,” he said. “Of course it cannot be accomplished overnight, but… if it is good for Williams, it ought to be done.”
And in a 1997 Bowdoin “Report of the Dean of Student Affairs,” then-dean Craig W. Bradley listed the “new house system” as the first reason why the school’s fraternity ban, which “has left a number of other campuses angry and shattered,” became “a different sort of thing” at Bowdoin.
Harvard has recently stepped up efforts to create new campus social spaces and revitalize existing ones. In an April 2017 interview, Khurana pointed in particular to the construction of new student gathering spots in the Cabot Science Library and the Smith Campus Center. He also mentioned a program allowing freshmen to rent out dormitory common rooms for parties.
A committee tasked with recommending how to implement Harvard’s sanctions had another idea, too—forming “inter-House dining societies” of roughly 40 students who could eat weekly meals in the dining halls. At these gatherings, the committee suggested in a March 2017 report, students might “eat in elegant attire” and “read Chaucer out loud.”
Some students remain unconvinced.
“It’s not sufficient,” Jessica R. Fournier ’17 says. “I think Harvard should do more and should take over [the final club properties]—that would certainly be a statement about what the values and priorities of the institution are, beyond reports and emails about Chaucer.”
In the same March report, the implementation committee itself seemed to acknowledge Harvard’s attempts to provide new social spaces might be insufficient.
The report’s authors noted that the institutions that have been most successful at limiting the impact of single-gender social groups took “bold steps”—combining strict social group policies with “significant investment in alternatives,” including the reorganization of residential systems. Those that “took half measures,” though, realized less “positive change” in the undergraduate social experience.
In its later report proposing a social group ban, the faculty committee was even more blunt.
“Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams… coupled [their] restrictions with their new development of residential housing,” committee members wrote. “In hindsight, Harvard missed that opportunity when the residential housing system was established in 1930.”
The party in Bowdoin’s Reed House—once home to the Alpha Eta of Chi Psi fraternity, now one of the college’s eight sophomore-only residential houses—is picking up. Even though it’s late, already past 1 a.m., people keep coming in.
It’s the first weekend out for the freshman class, and the party hosts are determined to impress. One sophomore in a white T-shirt reading “MURICA” suddenly runs into the middle of a quiet living room area, slings an old-fashioned boombox onto the floor, and yells, “Dance party!”
He twirls a laughing girl in a white mini-skirt while freshmen, lining the walls with red Solo cups in hand, watch and laugh too. Many of them say they didn’t know Reed used to be a frat house. They say they’re pretty happy with Bowdoin parties so far—they seem surprised to be asked.
At Bowdoin, students don’t fuss too much about social life, sophomore Dylan Hayton-Ruffner explains. If undergraduates do have a complaint, it’s that things on the leafy 207-acre campus in southern Maine can be “too sleepy.”
Bowdoin offers a version of the future Harvard seems unlikely to share, at least for the next few years. Widespread discontent among final club and fraternity alumni—along with threats of a retaliatory lawsuit—almost certainly shove “sleepiness” out of the picture.
If the University ultimately decides to ban or sanction single-gender social organizations, lawyers predict at least one of the affected groups—whether a final club, a fraternity, or a sorority—will sue. Tim M. Burke, an attorney whose firm serves as general counsel for the National Panhellenic Conference, says he thinks a suit might have a good chance of succeeding.
There have been legal rumblings since Faust debuted the sanctions in May 2016. Half a year later, the all-male Fly Club hired a group of lawyers to explore potential ways to defy the policy. National Greek organizations including the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference have repeatedly refused to rule out legal action.
After the faculty committee proposed upgrading Harvard’s sanctions to an all-out ban in July 2017, club leaders, too, stepped up their rhetoric. At the time, Fly Club graduate president Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 said he thought “things seem headed” in the direction of litigation, while former Fox Club graduate president Douglas W. Sears ’69 said he thought anything resembling a social group ban would be “heavily litigated in the courts.”
Burke says he has been “in discussion” with some of Harvard’s social groups since the announcement of the penalties and that the talks “are not over.” He declines to specify further.
Efforts to sue private universities for fraternity bans are often unsuccessful, Burke explains, because the Federal Civil Rights Act—which protects students’ right to freedom of association under the First Amendment—only applies to “state actors.” Because Harvard is not a public institution, “that is not a likely attack,” he says.
But he says he thinks Harvard might be more susceptible to legal action than other private universities like Bowdoin or Williams. In particular, Burke says lawyers could try to use the College’s route to its social group policy—marked by top-down administrative strictures, retroactive appeasement, and turmoil among the Faculty—against Harvard in court.
Khurana spent months meeting with final club leaders behind closed doors before Faust announced the sanctions; he also canvassed the subject with other administrators. And he examined hundreds of private student responses to College-administered surveys collected over the past few years.
Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, probably the most vocal faculty critic of the College’s penalties, has long charged that Harvard’s attempts to govern undergraduate social life encroach on Faculty authority and go against University statutes. Lewis has filed two separate faculty motions, both explicitly designed to kill the sanctions.
FAS Dean Smith formed the faculty committee that recommended the social group ban in part to mollify those who, like Lewis, demanded a greater level of faculty involvement. Nevertheless, no part of the College’s social group policy has ever been voted on by the full faculty.
Burke says he thinks pointing out “all of these strange machinations” will be a key argument in “any litigation” going forward. Greg F. Hauser, an attorney who has often worked with Greek organizations, goes one step further.
“Showing that Harvard violated something in its policies or its procedures is probably the most clear-cut way to knock this out,” he says.
Both lawyers note Amherst and Williams made continual attempts to consult students, faculty, and alumni as they debated and developed their respective social group bans. Between 1925 and 1961 (the year before it abolished Greek life), Williams formed at least eight different committees to study social life. It also held one faculty vote, three undergraduate polls, and one student vote on the subject.
Burke and Hauser also say Harvard’s shifting rationale for its attempts to regulate undergraduate social life could prove a legal liability. Harvard has twice revised its stated motivation for proposing its own ban, shifting the focus of the sanctions away from sexual assault prevention towards the elimination of gender discrimination, and then towards preventing all forms of discrimination.
Like Williams, Harvard initially based its social group recommendations on the troublesome findings of a committee—in the University’s case, the March 2016 report of the Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention. The task force found that nearly half of surveyed female members of the Class of 2015 who participated in the final clubs—whether as members or partygoers—said they had experienced sexual assault.
In the same March report, the task force called on the College to develop a “plan to address the problems presented” by final clubs. Two months later, Faust announced the sanctions.
But administrators soon began backpedaling away from the idea that sexual harassment at final clubs sparked the College’s social group policy. A set of recommendations for implementing the penalties released in March 2017 declared that sexual assault was “not the sole nor even the primary reason for the policy.” Instead, administrators said the sanctions were meant to combat gender discrimination inherent in the clubs’ membership policies. In an interview from that time, Khurana said he thought the penalties had been “rooted” in eliminating gender discrimination “since the beginning.”
Not three months later, the faculty committee contributed its two cents, broadening the scope of the sanctions to address all forms of discrimination: “Our main reservation about the stated goal of the policy was whether the focus on ending gender segregation and discrimination is too narrow,” members wrote in a July 2017 report. “The committee also has concerns about broader issues in these organizations related to exclusion and conduct… not addressed by the May 2016 policy.”
Burke says these inconsistencies will “absolutely” be a factor in court, should one of Harvard’s affected social groups choose to sue the University.
“Without having a solid explanation—and they don’t, because they keep changing it—that, I think, increases the likelihood that a court would look very askew at efforts by Harvard,” he says.
The sun is streaming through the windows of Tunnel City Coffee in Williamstown, and senior varsity cross country runner Katie G. Flaharty—a blue gem-studded high school class ring glittering on her finger—is trying to explain Williams nightlife.
She’s struggling to convey what it’s like to go to a school where the parties are open to everyone, and everyone knows about pretty much every party. “If you hear about it, you can come,” Flaharty says. “Rarely do people not allow people to get in.”
Does it ever happen? Flaharty sighs.
“Well, some girl had a birthday party [recently] and she didn’t want it to get out of hand, so she put two football players at the door and said, ‘If you don’t know them, don’t let them in,’” Flaharty says. “That caused a bit of drama for the whole campus because they were all like, ‘She’s such a bitch! Why isn’t she letting us in?’”
It’s a saying common to students at Amherst, Bowdoin, and Williams that, for every person who wants to “do something” on a Friday or Saturday night, there is always “something to do.” Undergraduates today attribute this in part to the schools’ small size, meaning what works in Williamstown and Brunswick might not go over as well in Cambridge.
Williams has just over 2,000 students; Amherst and and Bowdoin both have slightly over 1,800. Harvard has more than three times that: roughly 6,700 undergraduates.
Only a small portion of College students actually join final clubs. In The Crimson’s annual survey of graduating seniors, 6.8 percent of surveyed members of the Class of 2016 said they belonged to an all-male club, while 8.3 percent of surveyed seniors reported belonging to an all-female group.
Social life carries on outside the clubs, too. Harvard’s 12 residential houses host formal parties throughout the year, and students often register and hold parties in dormitory common spaces.
But students at the three smaller schools say the absence of Greek life has opened the social scene in a way almost unimaginable at Harvard. On any given weekend, there is almost always a party in one of the college-owned former fraternity houses, repurposed as social spaces open to all. Brightly lit and filled with people on a Friday night, Amherst’s Mayo-Smith House—once home to Delta Chi Psi—offers a typical example.
Undergraduates pass in and out at will. Those who stay dance, drink beer, and chat with friends, though no one seems to stay for very long. The fluorescent lights and constant movement vaguely recall a train station.
In Cambridge, things are different. Closed doors are one of the most prominent features of undergraduate social life. The final clubs are the main sites of after-hours parties on the weekends, and members are selective about who they let in.
By 2022, there may be no clubs left to guard.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: September 24, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated the location of Bowdoin College. It is in Brunswick, Maine, not New Brunswick.