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Seneca Abandons Recognized Status, Provisionally Recognized as Independent Student Organization

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University Hall
University Hall in Harvard Yard.

The Committee on Student Life granted the Seneca — a former all-female social organization that went co-ed in August 2016 in response to Harvard College’s social group sanctions — provisional recognition as an Independent Student Organization in fall 2018, a change from its former status as a Recognized Social Organization.

RSOs are former single-gender organizations that are “primarily social” in purpose and “do not discriminate on the basis of gender,” and are therefore not subject to the penalties on single-gender groups, according to the Dean of Students Office website. Harvard’s sanctions policy — announced in May 2016 and first applied to the Class of 2021 — prohibits members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations from obtaining College endorsement for high-profile fellowships like the Rhodes and from serving in leadership positions in varsity sports teams and some extracurricular clubs.

ISOs are groups of undergraduates “who unite to promote or celebrate a common interest or talent in ways that are separate from formal course study,” according to the DSO Resource Guide for Student Organizations. More than 400 extracurricular organizations on campus — ranging from a cappella groups to cultural affinity clubs — are currently classified as ISOs.

The Seneca chose to apply for ISO status through the Undergraduate Council, according to College spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman. He confirmed the UC granted the group “provisional” recognition in fall 2018 and will review its eligibility for full recognition in spring 2020.

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The UC and former Office of Student Life — now known as the DSO — first announced the new review process for prospective student organizations in spring 2017. Organizations seeking recognition first apply for provisional status with the UC in the fall. After a one-year trial period, the UC reviews them again for full recognition.

Seneca Co-Presidents Keziah Clarke ’20 and Hadley N. DeBello ’20 wrote in an emailed statement Monday that the Seneca’s “passion for womxn’s advocacy” made it more suitable to be classified as an ISO than as an RSO.

“We believed that ISO status was more representative of our organization’s advocacy-based mission than the RSO status originally granted to us by the College,” Clarke and DeBello wrote.

They added that the Seneca organizes professional workshops, hosts an annual Women’s Faculty Reception, and participates in Women’s Week in the spring.

“While we take pride in our strong community and enjoy participating in and hosting our own safe, open, and inclusive social events, The Seneca’s mission is not purely social in nature,” they wrote. “We are also focused on pursuing initiatives that create better environments and opportunities for womxn.”

While several historically single-sex groups chose to adopt co-ed membership policies and become RSOs, some Greek groups and final clubs continue to fight the College’s sanctions. In December 2018, national groups affiliated with sororities and fraternities — along with three anonymous College students — sued Harvard in federal and state court, contending that the sanctions illegally constitute sex-based discrimination.

On Friday, Harvard defended its motions to dismiss the twin suits, marking the last round of legal filings before state and federal judges decide whether to proceed with the cases.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at sanjana.narayanan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at samuel.zwickel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.

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