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Sanctions and Sanctimony

By Michael Gritzbach
By Michelle I. Gao
Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

I want to be convinced of the sanctions. I have ever since I came into Harvard, mixed on the issue. Like the sanctions’ opponents, I had concerns that they were mixing together all types of single-gender organizations and infringing on students’ rights. But I supported what I presumed to be the sanctions’ main goals: lessening the power of these clubs and rectifying the social scene on campus.

So I have imagined this topic as a debate, like one that students might have in a classroom or an Institute of Politics forum — except that Harvard is one of the parties that must persuade. But for a long time, this has been far from reality, since Harvard is not obligated to convince its students to support the sanctions. And fair enough — as University President Lawrence S. Bacow said, anyone who chooses to attend Harvard chooses to live under its rules. But regardless of what Harvard has to do, I still think it should try to defend itself. That’s what the school would ask of its students.

I hope the pending sanctions lawsuit will force Harvard to actually make arguments and be persuasive. Because so far, the rhetoric of the administration surrounding the sanctions rollout has been insufficient and even insulting.

Most bafflingly, the administration seems perfectly willing to contradict itself and make easily disprovable allegations. Its first motivation for the sanctions was to address sexual assault. Though surely nobody would profess to be against preventing sexual assault, many were, rightfully, against using sanctions to do so. Even though the administration moved away from this rationale, instead of acknowledging the shift, it ended up sidestepping as if sexual assault prevention had never been the main rationale at all — an easily challenged stance that, in hindsight, already hinted at the disingenuousness to come.

The administration also ignores developments that raise questions about whether the sanctions are working. Its newer rationales for the sanctions are that they will tackle gender discrimination, as the first step in tackling all forms of discrimination. There are fair points here: The final clubs are notoriously exclusive, and former University President Drew G. Faust has been especially passionate about improving women’s feeling of belonging at college.

So there should have been some serious reflection as the final clubs responded, for the most part, along two tracks. While the male clubs dug in their heels and vowed to resist, the female clubs opened up. As of December, there is only one all-female social organization at Harvard; for the previous four months, there had been zero.

Is this discrepancy a problem? If the goal of the sanctions is to eradicate gender discrimination, probably not. But if the goal is to help women feel more included in Harvard’s social scene, then maybe it is. The point is, there’s a debate here that the administration isn’t grappling with. Bacow acknowledged that organization members are “responding in their own way” — but his statement euphemistically glosses over the issue that there seem to be two distinct ways, separated by gender.

The extent to which the administration relies on canned answers that could have been given two years ago, instead of responding to new developments, is captured perfectly in this correction. In December, The Crimson clarified that in an interview that month with Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Khurana did not “not answer” questions regarding the sanctions; he merely “repeatedly pointed to previous statements instead of directly answering questions.”

One of Khurana’s answers also embodies my third complaint: that the administration patronizes its students. To the question of how exactly the sanctions would be enforced — a basic question that still did not have an answer — Khurana replied: “I trust our students,” and “I would ask each student to think about… being the best version of themselves.”

As heartwarming as it is, this laughably vague statement contradicts the very nature of the sanctions. If the administration trusted its students, it would not need sanctions. Harvard cannot have it both ways.

To justify the sanctions, the administration must justify their premise — that Harvard believes its students do not deserve that trust. Khurana’s kind of non-answer suggests that the administration doesn’t just not care about its hypocrisy; it also has the gall to assume that we students won’t care or notice.

With these obfuscations and stalls, the sanctions rollout has disappointed and irked me. But I can’t imagine that this is the best Harvard can do; I think this rollout has been the product of the administration’s assuming it can unilaterally dictate a policy without addressing pushback. But I do still want to be persuaded. I hope the lawsuit will force Harvard to go on the defensive and do that real work of persuading.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

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