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Just a few months into his tenure, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has a simple message for Harvard hopefuls: don’t apply if you’re not comfortable with the College’s social group penalties.
The sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from holding student group leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.
In his first full-length interview with The Crimson last week, Bacow said the policy reflects the College’s values of inclusion and belonging and that prospective students should “embrace” those principles before deciding to attend Harvard.
“Nobody puts a gun to anybody’s head and says that they have to come here,” Bacow said. “These are really important issues for students. If they don’t like the way we do things, there are other places which they can go to school that have adopted a different approach, but we’ve tried to be explicit about what we care about, what our values are, who we are.”
For Bacow, the sanctions are specifically intended to promote gender inclusivity.
“We want every student that comes to Harvard to feel welcome and included,” he said. “We don’t want students by virtue of their gender to feel like they are not part of the institution more broadly.”
Gender, though, has not always been the rationale Harvard administrators have relied on to make the case for the social group penalties. When former University President Drew G. Faust first announced the controversial policy in spring 2016, she said the penalties aimed to reduce sexual assault. Since then, administrators have pivoted to gender-based inclusivity as a justification, then diversity of all stripes.
Despite administrators’ pivot to gender as a rationale, the sanctions have taken a disproportionate toll on all-female social groups. All 10 formerly all-female groups applied for and received official College recognition in September, in exchange for vowing to go gender-neutral.
In contrast, some all-male final clubs have resisted the sanctions and refused to go co-ed. The Cambridge Coalition — a group comprising the Fly Club, the Porcellian Club, and the AD Club, and the national organizations of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Chi, and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternities — has traveled to the nation’s capital to lobby Congress to pass a law that could imperil Harvard’s social group policy.
Bacow said students in organizations are “responding in their own way” to the sanctions. He added that, in his first months on the job, he is still examining how the policy is playing out.
“I’m still, as a new president, getting to know and understand sort of the impact of our policies and how it’s affecting folks,” he said.
This isn’t Bacow’s first encounter with Harvard’s social group policy; before taking office in July, he served as a member the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — when the group voted in Dec. 2017 to keep the sanctions once and for all, ending more than a year of uncertainty surrounding the policy’s future.
Bacow said he thinks it is important to highlight what the College has “not done,” which is to bar students from joining single-gender social organizations entirely. He referred to similar, but not identical policies at Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and Williams College that effectively banned the existence of single-gender social groups on their campuses.
“We haven’t said to students they cannot belong to these organizations. They can,” Bacow said. “We’ve said you decide, but there are consequences to those decisions.”
Bacow said the College, in that respect, has attempted to give students flexibility in how they construct their social lives at Harvard.
“If you want to hold yourself out as being the best that Harvard has to offer, we have expectations that you would live up to the ideals of inclusion and belonging that are embraced by the University,” he said.
The landscape of Harvard social groups will likely evolve in the years to come, Bacow predicted. In examining the impact of the policy, Bacow said he will see “how it all sorts out.”
“I suspect that it wouldn’t surprise me if things look different a year, two years, three years from now then they look now. I don’t think we’ve reached equilibrium yet,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.
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