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Sanctions: Noble, but Ham-Fisted

The focus of the sanctions conversation desperately needs correction. In my experience, the sanctions debate typically devolves as students restate their personal dispositions towards final clubs under a guise of argument, instead of evaluating the policy’s efficacy. It appears, for the foreseeable future, that the sanctions lawsuits will remain thorns in the sides of both Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and University President Lawrence S. Bacow. Legal experts analyzing the suits believe that they are unlikely to be immediately dismissed. Although the fervor of debate may have cooled, the conversation remains relevant.

Harvard undergraduates and faculty members alike possess a breadth of opinion on the sanctions issue, touting values such as freedom of association, sexual assault prevention, and inclusivity as foundations for these opinions. Yet debates over the comparative weight of inclusivity, safety, and liberty, while relevant and important, are in fact secondary in the conversation about sanctions. The central question should be whether or not the sanctions effectively and efficiently produce the outcome they are designed to produce. In other words, do sanctions do their job?

The first step in assessing any policy is to look to its purpose. In a 2017 statement on the sanctions, then-University President Drew G. Faust condemned the negative impact of final clubs on Harvard’s campus and expressed her desire “to create a community where students have the fair opportunity to engage in curricular and extracurricular activities regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status, or other attributes unrelated to merit.” Faust also quoted the Undergraduate Council, who said, “The negative externalities of Harvard’s divisive social life cannot be ignored. The stratification that many of these groups insert into our community is striking and their impact is widely felt.”

These criticisms exemplify a good-faith effort to improve the College social experience for a majority of Harvard undergraduates. I commend administrators’ efforts to make an inclusive social scene for its students. However, it is not clear to me that targeting final clubs has been the best way to achieve this goal. Harvard is overflowing with highly exclusive organizations, including the Crimson Key Society, the Hasty Pudding Social Club, or the Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Though the University may prevent students from congregating in final clubs, these organizations, along with athletic teams, would serve as proxies for final clubs.

More importantly though, the concern of social exclusion, a primary consideration articulated in the letter, is poorly addressed by the sanctions. Although they are separate, male and female final clubs often interact as a community through mixers and other events. So, integrating final clubs would not remotely open up the social scene. This begs the question: What are sanctions for?

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Perhaps the administration believes that single-gender clubs are intrinsically immoral due to their discriminatory nature. If this were their stated motivation for the sanctions, the policy might apply adequate pressure to force the clubs to be inclusive to members of all genders. But the sanctions would then be ineffective as their exclusion of other single gender non-social organizations like a cappella groups, many of which do not have gender parity. However, gender dynamics compose only a small part of the general concern previously expressed by the administration.

Another oft-professed virtue of forcing clubs to go co-ed is that doing so would alleviate the problem of sexual assault on Harvard’s campus. Forcing gender integration may reduce instances of sexual assault, but there is no concrete evidence that this is the best way for Harvard to reduce its incidence, given the fact that sexual assault and harassment pervade the University beyond the final club scene. There is also no evidence that there is a sexual assault problem in single gender female organizations; so, if sexual assault were a motivating factor in the policy, it does not make sense to penalize them. As for the all-male organizations, it is sloppy to target every single one. Each social organization has its own unique culture; bundling them all together is unjust as it falsely implicates those who have acted with propriety. The University should be targeting individual perpetrators specifically, instead of taking broad action against organizations. Proper punitive action requires precision.

Further, forcing every all-male club to go co-ed obfuscates individual responsibility for perpetrating assault by blaming groups of men for ensuing sexual misconduct. This attitude toward assault does not hold individuals accountable for their actions by instead condemning the organization. Although a toxic environment may exacerbate bad behavior, the University should be focusing on punishing individual perpetrators, not groups.

Perhaps Harvard does not feel inclined to act with precision in this matter because of its generally negative attitude towards final clubs. Harvard’s policy must be reformed with a more focused approach and redesigned to ensure the policy ensures the outcome the University has professed it desires. Administrators should take into consideration the positive impact that final clubs have on their members without compromising the admirable goals the University has established. Although sanctions do not address the vast majority of problems the University has identified, a reformed policy has the potential to benefit undergraduates and improve student social life. With a defter touch, the University could achieve a more inclusive campus without the crossfire.

Daniel L. Aklog ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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