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United States Representative Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) denounced Harvard’s social group sanctions as discriminatory and argued in favor of legislation protecting college students’ freedom of association during a committee hearing Wednesday.
“This right is undermined when students in single-sex organizations that are operating consistent with Title IX can be discriminated against purely because they join these organizations,” Stefanik said. “It has been deeply discouraging to see my college alma mater Harvard — which I love — institute harmful policies regarding single-sex organizations, unfairly punishing students who choose to participate in these groups.”
Stefanik’s comments came during a markup session for the College Affordability Act, a Democrat-driven reauthorization of the Higher Education Act aimed at lowering the cost of postsecondary schooling. Stefanik currently serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor, where the legislation is being proposed.
The College’s contentious sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of single-gender Greek groups and final clubs from leading extracurricular organizations, holding athletic captaincies, and receiving College endorsements for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.
On Tuesday, Virginia A. Foxx (R-N.C.) — the Committee on Education and Labor’s ranking member — introduced an amendment to the College Affordability Act that aims to ensure “non-retaliation against students of single-sex social organizations.” Language in a working draft of the bill prohibits institutions that receive federal funding under the Higher Education Act from “taking any adverse action” against affiliates of single-gender social clubs on the basis of those organizations’ single-sex membership policies.
In her remarks Wednesday, Stefanik — a former Crimson editorial editor — lauded the roles that she believes single-gender clubs play to “foster leadership, promote academic achievement, and encourage civic and campus involvement through philanthropic activities.”
“This bipartisan proposal will protect students’ rights to freely associate and uphold access to the unique and supportive environments that can be fostered through these organizations,” Stefanik said.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in a statement that the College’s position is “a measured and lawful policy” that does not discriminate against any student.
“Harvard College seeks to build a community in which every student can thrive, and it does so on a foundation of shared values, including belonging, inclusion, and non-discrimination. In accordance with these values, and for more than a century, Harvard has not had a Greek-life system on campus,” Dane wrote. “Harvard should not have to change its commitment to non-discrimination and educational philosophy for outside organizations that are not aligned with our long-standing mission.”
Still in an early stage of the legislative process, the College Affordability Act is moving forward. Stefanik’s spokesperson — Madison Anderson — wrote in an email that the bill was expected to pass a committee vote on Wednesday, though the committee ultimately did not finish marking up the bill that night as planned. If the bill succeeds, Harvard may have little freedom to enforce its policies.
Recent attempts at reauthorizing the Higher Education Act have failed to draw bipartisan support. The PROSPER Act — a proposed overhaul that passed the House committee in December 2017 — threatened certain financial aid programs across the nation and contained a similar provision threatening the sanctions, provoking concern from former University President Drew G. Faust. But the Republican-drafted legislation, effectively dead after the November 2018 midterm elections, never moved to the full House or Senate for a formal vote.
Over the summer, Stefanik joined Ruben M. Gallego ’02 (D-Ariz.) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing the College Freedom of Association Act, a bill seeking to amend the Higher Education Act with a rule upholding freedom of association protections for members of single-gender organizations. This and the PROSPER Act are the consequence of a concerted lobbying effort funded in part by single-sex clubs in Cambridge.
Current legislation is not the only effort threatening to derail the College’s social group sanctions. Parallel state and federal lawsuits allege Harvard’s policies violate students’ freedom of association and constitute sex-based discrimination. A judge ruled in August that the federal challenge will move forward; the discovery phase of the litigation is expected to begin soon.
—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.
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