A Congressional committee has approved a bill tying federal education funding to students’ freedom of association, threatening Harvard’s ability to enforce its controversial penalties on single-sex social organizations.
House Committee on Education and Labor members voted 28-22 to approve the College Affordability Act — a Democrat-led reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 — on Thursday. A section of the legislation entitled “Freedom of Association” sets forth a policy mandating “non-retaliation against students of single-sex social organizations,” according to Christina Carr, a spokesperson for Ruben M. Gallego ’02 (D-Ariz.). Should the act find support in Congress at large, it could eventually force the College to choose between significant sums of federal funding and implementing its contentious social group sanctions.
“An institution of higher education that receives funds under this Act shall not … take any adverse action against a student who is a member of a single-sex social organization based solely on the membership practice of such organization limiting membership to only individuals of one sex,” the provision reads.
Harvard’s sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — forbid undergraduate members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from captaining athletic teams, leading student groups, and receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.
The section threatening the sanctions is a brief passage in a more than 1,000-page bill that is largely focused on making higher education more affordable through expanded Pell Grant funding, lower interest rates for student loans, and support for tuition-free community colleges, among other initiatives.
At a mark-up session for the legislation Wednesday, United States Representative Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) — who is a member of the Committee on Education and Labor — lambasted Harvard’s social group policies, calling them “deeply discouraging” and “harmful.”
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in a statement Wednesday — while the legislation was still being marked up — that the College is implementing “a measured and lawful policy” that is not discriminatory. She declined to comment further Thursday after the committee had approved the Act.
“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,” 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.”
Though the College Affordability Act is moving forward through the legislative process, a divided Congress means the bill might have slim chances of becoming law. The Committee voted Thursday along party lines, with 28 Democrats voting in favor of the Act.
The College Affordability Act differs substantially from a recent Republican-driven reauthorization attempt called the PROSPER Act — which was ultimately never put up for a vote in the House despite Republicans’ majority control of both chambers in 2018, according to Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
“The Republican 2018 bill would have cut 400 or 500... billion dollars from federal higher-education spending,” Hartle said. “And the Democratic bill, the College Affordability Act would increase it by 400 to 500 billion dollars over the next 10 years.”
Travis J. Bristol, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a Tuesday interview that he does not expect bills focusing on social programs to pass through Congress at this point in the Trump presidency.
“I think that we’re going to be focusing on impeachment at least until the next election,” Bristol said.
The bipartisan effort to amend the Higher Education Act with specific freedom of association protections follows a years-long lobbying push partially bankrolled by single-sex social clubs at Harvard. The PROSPER Act also included a clause imperiling Harvard’s sanctions that drew ire from former University President Drew G. Faust. Stefanik and Gallego introduced new legislation — the College Freedom of Association Act — targeting Harvard’s sanctions over the summer.
Lawmakers’ most recent attempt to thwart the sanctions comes amid parallel state and federal lawsuits alleging the policies are discriminatory and infringe on students’ freedom of association. In August, a judge ruled that the federal case will move forward, with the discovery stage — a fact-finding period that could include review of internal administrative documents and lengthy depositions from the Harvard officials responsible for formulating and implementing the sanctions —set to begin soon.
—Staff writer Devin B. Srivastava contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.