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One historically critical role of the American college system is to give students the ability to create meaningful relationships at a critical junction of their life. This is especially crucial in our age of increased levels of loneliness and depression amongst American teens.
At Harvard, social capital is too often under-prioritized compared to academics and extracurriculars. The shortage of social organizations on campus demonstrates this problem. There are only 13 official registered social organizations in addition to a handful of remaining unrecognized single gender social organizations. Thirty-seven percent of the 2018 graduating class reported being involved in an off-campus social group as opposed to Dartmouth, where approximately 60 percent of undergraduates are involved in off-campus social groups — most notably, Greek life.
It’s common knowledge that this social landscape is far from perfect. Final clubs with slim membership ranks have dominated the social scene. Guest lists for events that they host are kept short further adding to the clubs’ air of exclusivity. Freshmen are particularly excluded. Indeed, 55 percent of the graduating class of 2018 had an unfavorable view of final clubs.
But despite their failures, social organizations at Harvard can provide a great community experience — an experience that should be offered to all. Accordingly, participation in Harvard social life should be based on individual students’ choices.
The University’s attempt to break apart the exclusive membership system by forcing clubs to become mixed gender did not solve any problems. Rather, the College’s sanctions had a counterproductive effect — forcing the closing of female social spaces and incentivizing clubs to become more secretive. Additionally, the planned enforcement of the College’s sanctions based on having students rat each other out is toxic, patronizing, and shameful. Not only is the Dean of Students Office overreaching and infringing on the social decisions of students, but its policies will lead to mass distrust on campus.
A better proposal would be the creation of new final clubs. If the Harvard social scene was larger, people would self-select into clubs best suited for them. Of course, some clubs would remain exclusive. However, the separation between these clubs and the rest of the College would diminish. More students would be able to involve themselves in social organizations and the barriers around Harvard social life would fall.
The approach adopted by Princeton University serves as an interesting test case. At Princeton, 70 percent of upperclassmen are members of independent, coed “eating clubs” — social dining organizations. Each club brandishes a distinct character. Most importantly, half of the eating clubs maintain open admission processes based on a lottery system while half of the clubs are selective. This quasi-selective social system would suit Harvard well. Existing clubs could maintain their unique and historic characters while the creation of new “open” clubs would ensure that participation in a social club is a choice available to all undergraduates.
A critic could say that undergraduates have other avenues by which to build social capital. And Harvard students do construct meaningful relationships through participation in extracurriculars, athletics, and academic collaborations. But a disadvantage of these relationships is that their social aspects are often overlooked in relation to the original enterprises. Social organizations that are purely dedicated to building relationships are a better way to construct robust social capital and should be an integral component of Harvard student life.
On a practical note, starting an independent social organization is incredibly costly and difficult. An unfortunate implication of the University’s RSO policy is the disaffiliation of Harvard Greek life with its national chapters. National chapters provide funding and resources crucial to creating and maintaining Greek life on campuses across the country. The DSO should recognize the unintended consequences of their policy and provide funding for the creation and maintenance of independent, “open” social organizations for a few years until these organizations are able to form graduate boards capable of providing funding and governance.
Instead of focusing on existing clubs, the office should lower barriers for students willing to create new “open” social clubs. While this project would be a joint effort on behalf of the DSO and undergraduates, the College should maintain a hands-off approach to honor the independence of social organizations.
Social organizations around the country have come under heavy criticism for charges of hazing, racism, and elitism. However, these organizations are an important aspect of social capital on college campuses. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, undergraduates and colleges should try to fix the flaws in the current system. Harvard should be a model for creating a better social life on campus. The first step must be expanding the social system to make participation in an independent social organization available to all.
Widening social opportunities for students will allow more students to partake, mend flaws amongst some existing clubs, and ultimately create a more healthy and vibrant student experience on campus. So, Harvard – don’t close the clubs. Create more.
Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.
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