What Harvard's Social Group Recognition Form Reveals About the Sanctions

Social groups that wish to earn recognition and freedom from Harvard's penalties must fill out a form and deliver it to College officials. Here's what that application reveals about the state of the sanctions.
By Caroline S. Engelmayer and Michael E. Xie

By Diana C. Perez

Harvard's controversial sanctions on members of single-gender social groups are now two years old — and they seem to be having an effect.

A handful of historically all-male groups have gone co-ed while all traditionally all-female clubs have now agreed to adopt gender-neutral membership practices, The Crimson reported last month. The penalties, which took effect with the Class of 2021, bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from campus leadership positions, athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.

As the school's social landscape begins to shift, administrators are once again changing the rationale for the policy. At first, officials said the penalties were meant to combat sexual assault in properties — then, they were supposed to end gender exclusivity — and now, administrators seem to view the sanctions as a way to cancel all forms of discrimination.

Harvard recently made a copy of its social group recognition application available to students online. Social groups that wish to earn College recognition and thus freedom from the penalties must fill out the document and deliver it to Harvard officials.

Below, The Crimson analyzes that application and what it reveals about the state of the sanctions.

Then-University President Drew G. Faust first announced the social group sanctions in a May 2016 email to students, prompting intense backlash and scrutiny — forcing Harvard to form a committee specifically charged with evaluating and possibly revising the penalties.

In Dec. 2017, the Harvard Corporation waded into the debate and ended it by voting to keep the sanctions in their original form. This application formally references the 2017 vote — and not Faust's 2016 announcement — as the true birth of the penalties.

The College is now welcoming “merged” groups to apply for recognition. It is unclear exactly what this adjective means, but it could refer to the all-female and all-male campus groups that have joined forces since the sanctions took effect.

At least two sets of groups have done so. The historically all-female Bee Club and all-male Delphic Club agreed to share a clubhouse and membership in Sept. 2017. The historically all-female IC Club and all-male Owl Club decided to test out a similar partnership a few weeks ago.

Of the partnered groups, only the IC Club has so far announced that it applied for College recognition.

The College’s language cements a shift away from administrators’ previous justifications for the sanctions. Harvard initially cited sexual assault at properties owned by single-gender groups as the impetus for the policy, though administrators later said the penalties are meant to end gender exclusivity.

Now, though, a new three-tiered system of College recognition — and language within the application — suggest the sanctions’ purpose is broader than that. Administrators evidently hope the penalties will prevent discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, age, veteran status, disability, genetic information, military status, or any other protected status.”

Harvard requires groups applying for recognition to submit gender breakdowns of their membership. Instructions in the application offer insight into exactly how this process will work.

The College specifically wants students to send along an anonymous list of members and their corresponding genders — not a page filled with percentages or other representative statistics.

(And administrators want undergraduates to use Excel sheets.)

Some historically all-male final clubs have long relied on their powerful graduate boards for financial assistance, guidance, and professional networking. But administrators now seem to be targeting these alumni groups; in May, officials released a plan for the sanctions that asserted Harvard could deny recognition to social groups whose alumni members exert too much sway over the organizations.

In this section of the application, Harvard outlines its "local autonomy" requirements for recognized social groups. The inclusion of the category of “finances” could mean the College has designs to imperil organizations’ ability to receive funding from alumni members.

Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander R. Miller wrote in a statement that recognized social groups “will continue to have the opportunity to raise finances through member dues, alumni gifts and other sources of revenue,” though Harvard will prioritize ensuring “that all student organizations retain autonomous control over their own finances.”

The document hints at the idea that administrators intend the sanctions to discourage students in social groups from discriminating against their peers on the basis of their socioeconomic status. The highest level of Harvard recognition demands that social groups develop “a program that reduces financial barriers to participation,” per the document.

The Dean of Students Office is meeting with the 14 groups that have applied to earn recognition this week. The College plans to publish a full list of groups that have earned recognition — meaning they are free of the sanctions — in early September, according to Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair.

Correction: Sept. 10, 2018

A previous version of this article misstated the name of Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander R. Miller. It has been updated.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at caroline.engelmayer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

—Staff writer Michael E. Xie can be reached at michael.xie@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEXie1.

Social Group Sanctions