Senator Michael K. Braun (R-Ind.) wrote that he hopes Harvard “reconsiders” its sanctions on single-gender social organizations in an open letter to the University earlier this month, writing that the policy constitutes a “senseless decision” that is “harming” students.
The letter — dated April 9 and addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow — comes in response to the College’s controversial sanctions policy, which took effect with the Class of 2021. The policy bars members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from receiving College endorsements for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes, and from holding certain campus leadership positions and athletic team captaincies.
“Federal law recognizes the positive role that such organizations can take at universities,” Braun wrote. “Indeed, under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in higher education, Congress specifically exempts ‘the membership practices of a social fraternity or social sorority.’”
Braun’s missive arrived in Cambridge amid persistent lobbying efforts from single-gender social organizations nationwide to prevent Harvard from enforcing its penalties against social groups, according to North-American Interfraternity Conference spokesperson Todd Shelton.
Hundreds of fraternity and sorority members from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to lobby Congress to protect affiliates of single-gender groups, Shelton said. He said the group met with more than 450 Congressional offices — representing roughly 80 percent of voting members — to present their case during the second week of April.
Three Harvard undergraduates who are members of unrecognized single-gender social groups joined this lobbying effort, according to Shelton and two sources close to the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference.
Braun argued in his letter that single-sex fraternities and sororities can help students build friendships and professional networks. He added that women’s organizations have been unfairly impacted by the College’s policies.
“Women’s organizations have been collateral damage and have been forced to integrate or, in some cases, close,” Braun wrote.
All but one formerly all-female social group at Harvard have committed to going gender-neutral, while several all-male groups have refused to go co-ed. In August 2018, Alpha Phi was the last sorority to go co-ed and become a Recognized Social Organization, but some of its former members re-established the group on campus in December as an all-female club.
In his letter, Braun wrote he believes that the sanctions are “a superficial solution” to the problem of sexual assault on campus because such assaults can occur outside of single-gender organizations. When the University first unveiled its social group policy, it cited a 2015 University report that said women who are involved with final clubs are more likely to experience sexual assault.
Braun also wrote he is concerned that Harvard’s social group policy may pave the way for future “social engineering” efforts by the University.
“At what point will Harvard interfere in student membership in religious or political organizations it deems undesirable?” Braun wrote.
Braun’s letter comes amidst parallel federal and state lawsuits alleging that Harvard’s social group penalties constitute sex-based discrimination and violate students’ freedom of association. Like Braun, the plaintiffs for the federal suit — which include Greek organizations and Harvard undergraduates — claim the sanctions infringe upon Title IX, which is part of federal civil rights law.
Bacow responded to Braun’s arguments in a letter delivered to the senator’s Washington, D.C., office Friday morning. Bacow wrote that faculty, students, and alumni have worked to develop the sanctions policy and ensure that it reflects Harvard’s values.
“Harvard is not banning these social groups, nor is it prohibiting membership in them. The policy is about institutional prerogatives,” Bacow wrote. “Students may choose to join unrecognized, single-gender social organizations, but the University has chosen to adopt a policy regarding student eligibility for leadership positions in Harvard-recognized organizations or Harvard endorsements that is aligned with our core values of non-discrimination and inclusion.”
Bacow’s letter to Braun reflected legal arguments made by University attorneys that students have full knowledge of the social group penalties when they enroll at the College.
“Harvard’s policy was adopted on a prospective basis only, ensuring that any students who would be covered by the policy were on notice before they decided to matriculate,” Bacow wrote.
Braun’s communications staff did not respond to several requests for comment on what motivated the senator to write the letter, what legislative action he might consider, or whether or not Bacow’s letter assuages his concerns.
The threat of Congressional intervention in reaction to the sanctions has loomed over Massachusetts Hall for several years — since eight days after the Corporation voted to approve the penalties in December 2017, to be exact. At the time, the House of Representatives began considering a rewrite of the PROSPER Act, a higher education bill that could include language barring universities that receive federal funding from penalizing undergraduates who join certain single-gender social organizations.
Consortia of Harvard final clubs and the parent organizations for many Greek groups have hired prominent lobbying firm Arnold & Porter to represent their interests, and a constituent PAC has donated thousands of dollars to the legislation’s most vocal supporters.
Over the past year, some of these groups have traveled to the nation’s capital to lobby Congress to pass legislation that could imperil Harvard’s social group policy.
Dani Weatherford — CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization for 26 sororities — wrote in an emailed statement that it is a “critical time” for lobbying because Congress may reauthorize the Higher Education Act soon.
“Part of our focus is on ensuring that we protect freedom of association rights for college students. And we particularly want lawmakers to understand that threats to free association have had real consequences for women’s organizations and women’s spaces at Harvard,” Weatherford wrote. “Whether it’s at Harvard or on any other campus, we will always advocate for freedom of association.”
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain did not say whether or not Bacow has received other letters from members of Congress who oppose the sanctions.
—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.