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Harvard Switched the Rationale for the Sanctions Again. Now It Wants to End All Forms of Discrimination

The Owl Club is one of the final clubs that is affected by the sanctions.
The Owl Club is one of the final clubs that is affected by the sanctions. By Lu Shao
By Caroline S. Engelmayer and Michael E. Xie, Crimson Staff Writers

At first, they were a way to stop sexual assault on campus. Then, they were meant to end gender exclusivity.

Now — marking the second pivot in rationale in the same number of years — administrators seem to view the College’s controversial social group penalties as a path to eventually cancel discrimination of every stripe around Harvard’s campus.

An application that social groups must complete if they want to gain College recognition and avoid the sanctions reveals the expansion of administrators’ hopes for what the penalties will accomplish.

The application lays out three levels of Harvard recognition that social groups can obtain. To earn the lowest tier, organizations must demonstrate their intent to adopt gender-neutral membership policies. But to attain the upper two — the highest of which comes with unspecified amounts of College cash — groups need to show they do not discriminate against their peers in any way.

Groups in the top two levels cannot discriminate based on “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,” according to the application, available to Harvard students online.

Related: [Read an annotated copy of the application]

The College’s sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of final clubs and Greek organizations from holding student group leadership roles, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.

When then-University President Drew G. Faust first unveiled the policy in the spring of 2016, she said the penalties were meant to combat sexual assault in single-gender clubs. Almost a year later, administrators back-tracked, writing in a set of recommendations for implementing the sanctions that concern over sexual assault did not drive the policy’s formation.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana has since said the sanctions are supposed to fight gender exclusivity on campus.

Harvard first hinted its justification for the penalties had changed yet again — this time to total non-discrimination — when the Office of Student Life announced the College’s three-tiered system of recognition in May 2018. The social group application confirms and cements that shift.

The document also points to an added rationale — the notion that the sanctions may discourage discrimination based on socioeconomic status. In order to achieve the highest level of recognition, per the application, groups must develop “a program that reduces financial barriers to participation.”

Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78, the graduate president of the all-male Fly Club, said in an interview that he thinks “the administration is slow walking the details of the implementation.”

“With the administration, there’s always another shoe to drop on this millipede,” he said. “They never disclose up front what students should know and be able to react to.”

Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander R. Miller declined to comment on the reasoning behind the sanctions via a spokesperson.

Changing rationales are not the only major development detailed in the application. The document also suggests College administrators could imperil recognized social groups’ ability to receive funding from alumni members.

The application states the College will weigh groups’ “local autonomy” when deciding whether to grant the organizations recognition. Administrators will particularly consider five categories when determining whether the groups are sufficiently independent, per the document — “governance, membership, programming, advising, and finances.”

It is so far unclear exactly what autonomy entails when it comes to “finances.”

Miller wrote in a statement that recognized social organizations “will continue to have the opportunity to raise finances through member dues, alumni gifts and other sources of revenue.”

But he added it is a “priority” for the College “to ensure that all student organizations retain autonomous control over their own finances.”

Since the sanctions’ debut, four sororities and two fraternities have cut links to their national chapters as part of an effort to go co-ed and comply with the policy. None of the final clubs appear to have severed relations with their governing alumni bodies to date. All-male final clubs have historically maintained close ties to their powerful graduate boards, which provide financial assistance, guidance, and sometimes govern the day-to-day operations of the groups.

Fourteen groups applied for College recognition this semester. The application round appears to have left Harvard’s campus without all-female social groups.

At least four of the 13 all-male social groups in Cambridge have also taken steps to comply with the sanctions. Others, though, are refusing to back down and are taking the fight to Capitol Hill, where they are lobbying members of Congress in favor of pending legislation that would force Harvard to choose between the sanctions and millions of dollars in federal research funding.

It remains unclear which of the groups that applied this fall will earn College recognition. Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair wrote in an August letter to students that she hopes to release a list of recognized student groups in early September.

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

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

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