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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
It’s been over a year since the College unveiled a policy that will penalize members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations. The unprecedented policy took effect a few weeks ago, when the Class of 2021—the first class subject to the social group sanctions—entered Harvard Yard.
Formulated and revised behind closed doors by two separate committees, the policy has been met with protest, resistance from some members of the Faculty, and—for over half a dozen unrecognized student groups—changes in membership policies.
But this summer, the future of that policy was thrown into question when a faculty committee proposed that Harvard ban membership in all social groups, co-ed or otherwise.
Now, with the future of both the existing policy and the proposed ban in question, Harvard students and administrators alike are grappling with the uncertain future of undergraduate social life at Harvard. Here’s a brief explanation of Harvard’s various efforts to reduce the influence of social groups at Harvard.
Breaking from the College’s near-three-decade-long pattern of administrative distance towards its unrecognized social groups, University President Drew G. Faust made the historic move in May 2016 to accept Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s recommended policy to regulate Harvard’s off-campus social life.
The policy—affecting all members of the freshman class—bars members of single-gender final clubs, sororities, and fraternities from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships.
In short, it is a revision—and expansion—of the original policy.
In January, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced the creation of a committee that could “revise or replace” the policy penalizing membershing in single-gender social groups. Many professors had argued that they had not been properly consulted in the policy’s formation; the new committee was meant to provide them the opportunity to have input on the College’s efforts to reshape undergraduate social life.
In July the “revise or replace” committee released its preliminary recommendation: that all social groups on Harvard’s campus—including gender neutral groups—be “phased out” by May 2022. In a 22-page report, the committee explained that the social group ban would replace the current sanctions and would take effect beginning with the Class of 2022. Other colleges like Amherst and Bowdoin, which have banned Greek life, provided inspiration for the committee’s recommendation.
Again, the recommended ban is just that—a recommendation. Faculty and students will have the opportunity to chime in on the ban this month before the committee delivers its final recommendations.
Since before they were even announced, Harvard’s efforts to penalize social group membership have been controversial. Shortly after Faust’s announcement, the original policy garnered national attention and sparked strong opinions across campus; many students, faculty, and outside observers opposed it, while some professors, varsity coaches, and members of the Harvard Corporation publicly stated their support.
Unsurprisingly, the clubs themselves have harshly opposed all proposed regulations: the proposed ban also fed speculation that final clubs would potentially sue Harvard.
More than anyone else, though, it has been opposition from professors at Harvard that have most shaped the debate. In particular, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and eleven other faculty members drafted a motion opposing the sanctions in May 2016, resolving that “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join.”
That motion divided professors for months, ultimately prompting Khurana to create the committee to revise the policy. And the opposition is only set to become more intense this semester after Lewis proposed an additional motion aimed at nullifying both the original policy and the potential social group ban.
Seven social groups have changed their membership policies since Harvard announced it would penalize social group membership: the Bee Club, the Delphic Club, the Oak Club, the Sabliere Society (now the “Sab”), the Seneca, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and Kappa Sigma (now KS).
In the months after the sanctions were announced, the Oak Club, the Sablière Society, and the Seneca announced plans to go gender-neutral. They joined the Spee Club, which allowed women to join in the fall of 2015.
Alpha Epsilon Pi, was the first fraternity to go gender neutral and disaffiliate from their national chapter in the spring of 2017. Kappa Sigma went gender neutral in September 2017 and subsequently was “unanimously expelled” by their national chapter.
While the changes in membership policies may make the gender-neutral organizations from the College’s current policy, students in those social groups would still be penalized under the proposed ban.
Thirteen social organizations continue to operate as single-gender. Six out of eight of the all-male final clubs remain all-male. The Fox Club, briefly welcomed nine women membership in the fall of 2015 on a “provisional” basis before revoking their membership this summer.
Harvard’s other three fraternities—Sigma Chi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Delta Kappa Epsilon—remain all-male. None of Harvard’s four sororities—Alpha Phi, Delta Gamma, Kappa Alpha Theta, Kappa Kappa Gamma—have made changes to their policies.
In the next few months, the Faculty and University President Drew G. Faust will decide whether to continue with the existing policy, adopt the social group ban, or try something else entirely.
Suzannah Clark and Khurana, who led the “revise or replace” committee, wrote an email to Faculty members in August detailing plans to revise their recommendations by September 25, following opportunity for faculty and student input. The committee plans to hold three drop-in faculty-only discussion sessions on Sept. 11, Sept. 14, and Sept. 15 in buildings across campus.
After that committee prepares its final report, it will make its recommendations to Faust, who will make the final call on banning membership in social groups. It’s unclear when Faust will make her decision.
Meanwhile, Faculty are poised to spend another fall semester debating Harvard undergraduate social life. Lewis’ motion could be introduced at the October Faculty meeting or the November Faculty meeting. Professor David L. Howell, a member of the Faculty Council, FAS’s highest elected body, said that it was likely Lewis’ motion would not go to a vote until the December meeting of the Faculty.
If the Faculty side with Lewis, and vote in favor of his anti-sanctions motion, it would deal a significant blow to Khurana’s policy—but it would not unequivocally kill it. However, the Faculty has historically been a formidable opponent to administrators who disagree with them.
—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.
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