After the Harvard chapter of sorority Kappa Alpha Theta disaffiliated from its international organization to become gender-neutral last August, the new group tried to retain part of its past, dubbing itself Theta Zeta Xi.
College administrators didn’t like the moniker.
The Dean of Students Office asked the group members to rebrand themselves if they wanted administrative recognition to shelter their members from College policies, which penalize single-gender social organizations, Rena N. Simkowitz ’19 wrote in an email to The Crimson.
Simkowitz — who is the former CEO of Harvard’s Theta chapter — and the group’s other leaders at the time eventually settled on the name “Themis Asteri,” evoking a Greek goddess instead of Greek row.
“Personally, one of the hardest parts of undergoing the transition to be an RSO was that even when I was dedicating multiple hours a day to the process of transitioning my organization, I felt like I was never doing enough,” Simkowitz, an inactive Crimson sports editor, wrote. “The bar that I needed to reach in order to ensure that members of my group would not be sanctioned for their affiliation was constantly going up.”
Themis Asteri is one of 14 organizations listed by the Dean of Students Office as a “Recognized Social Organization” for the 2018-2019 school year.
The designation represents the practical culmination of the College’s social group sanctions, first announced in 2016 by former University President Drew G. Faust. The sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of unrecognized single-gender groups from holding campus leadership positions, captaining varsity athletic teams, and receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.
After three years of protests, committees, shifting rationales, lobbying, and lawsuits, the implementation and effect of the policy are finally beginning to take shape.
But onlookers and club-members say the landscape of social groups remains sprawling and complicated. As the new recognized social groups turn one year old, the policies have led to a group of social clubs stumbling toward change, documents littered with administrative lingo, and a still-murky future for social life at the College.
When Faust first debuted the sanctions three years ago, she and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said the policy aimed to combat a rising tide of sexual assault on campus, including incidents from within the walls of all-male final clubs.
The sanctions drew intense protests from women’s groups almost immediately. Rallying in Harvard Yard, they argued that the policy would eliminate fledgling all-female groups rather than their more entrenched all-male counterparts.
Last August, their predictions came true. For three months, the College was without all-female groups as both sororities and female final clubs buckled under College pressure.
After the sorority Alpha Phi returned to campus in December, Harvard now boasts one. National Panhellenic Conference Chief Executive Officer Dani Weatherford said the new chapter is much smaller than its predecessor as many former members have since chosen to join a gender-neutral club, the Ivy.
Of the 14 recognized organizations listed by the DSO website, nine are former women’s groups and five are former men’s groups.
Simkowitz wrote that she thinks the sanctions’ differential impact stems from the unique mission of all-female groups. She wrote that, because the missions of women’s groups are often leadership- and service-oriented, their members tend to seek the opportunities affected by the sanctions.
“The University has created a policy that makes it impossible for women's organizations, which were founded with leadership-focused missions, to exist, while many of the men's groups are still thriving on campus with little-to-no structural or cultural changes following the implementation of Harvard’s social organization policy,” she wrote.
“In practice, Harvard’s policy, explicitly targeting leadership opportunities, was a direct attack only at the women’s organizations,” she added.
College spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman declined to comment.
Chiara “Kiki” Albanese ’19, a former member of the IC Club, said she thinks the policy has strayed far from its initial purpose. She said women’s groups have become “collateral damage.”
“The irony in taking away women’s spaces, in order to work on the issue of sexual assault on campus, was kind of laughable to me, because anecdotally, that’s, I think, one of the more protective measures,” she said.
When the female groups disappeared last summer, Associate Dean of Student Engagement Alexander R. Miller wrote in a statement that he was pleased both formerly all-male and all-female groups applied for College recognition.
“These applications represent a cross section of male, female and multi-gender groups, as well as fraternities, sororities and final clubs,” Miller wrote. “We are thrilled to have received so many applications, and excited to begin working with all of these groups.”
For both formerly all-male and all-female groups, the path to recognition has been far from uniform. Several former club leaders said they have seen inconsistencies between groups on the path to RSO status.
Simkowitz and former Oak Club president Christopher P. Ulian ’19 said that, in addition to changing names, some groups have had to “rebrand” in order to appeal to recruits of different genders. They said administrators advocated changes — such as new titles, logos, and organization colors — in order to make sure the RSOs are totally new groups rather than repackaged versions of sororities and fraternities.
The Themis Asteri website states that its “founders saw [the new name] as reflective of our organization's commitment to always strive to make decisions that are in the best interest of current and future Harvard students.”
Other clubs, though, have allegedly had to make fewer changes to make it onto the RSO list. Several club leaders and members with knowledge of the matter said that the Delphic and Bee Clubs, which share a house on Linden Street, are merged in name only. They said the two clubs hold many separate events and selected members independently last fall.
Undergraduate and graduate leaders from both the Delphic and the Bee did not respond to requests for comment.
Ulian wrote in an email that leaders of several recognized social groups formed a council after a series of group meetings with administrators beginning in the fall of 2017. He said the leaders strategize over how to navigate the road to recognition.
“It has provided opportunities for the clubs to have a hand in creating and implementing the recognition process, both through the representation that the co-presidents have on the RSO committee and by allowing club leadership to provide formal feedback and occasionally pushback to the administration,” he wrote.
Ulian said he broadly agrees with administrators’ decision to make different asks of different groups.
“There are also differences in the actual mechanics of each group's transition process, because each group is coming from a different place,” he added.
Once a group makes it onto the DSO’s list of compliant organizations, its work is far from over. To stay in the administration’s good graces, it must continue to demonstrate compliance with the policies.
Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Leadership Kate Colleran wrote in an emailed statement that her office will continue to work with recognized groups to ensure they fall in line with the sanctions. To shield their members from the College penalties, groups must prove that they have a gender-inclusive roster each year.
“We have been in regular communication with all of our RSO’s and these conversations have been very useful and productive. We plan to continue engaging with them, not only to ensure compliance with the policy, but to assist with any issues that may come up and make sure they have what they need in order to be successful,” Colleran wrote.
“All of our RSOs have demonstrated a commitment to gender inclusion and must continue to do so,” she added. “Each group is asked to submit an annual gender breakdown.”
Last spring, the DSO created a three-tier system of recognition for social groups: “Interim Recognition,” “Full Recognition,” and “Recognition with Distinction.”
The three tiers have varying requirements. Depending on which level a social organization is seeking, College administrators may ask its leaders to produce house rules, complete alcohol-related trainings, or create plans to reduce members’ financial burden.
All tiers do, however, have two major components in common. One is a gender-neutrality requirement. The other is a mandatory divorce from outside influence, whether from a national Greek organization or a graduate board that wields control over groups’ day-to-day affairs.
“Our intention has been to ensure that all organizations are operating independently from national or graduate boards, meaning that these boards are not involved in the group’s day-to-day operations, budget management or guidance of overall mission,” Colleran wrote.
Some social organization leaders said they faced as much difficulty in meeting the “local autonomy” requirement as they did in going gender-neutral.
Simkowitz wrote that the requirement to separate from her organization’s national sorority proved time-consuming.
“[It was] a complex, multi-step process that involved first formerly disaffiliating from Kappa Alpha Theta, an international sorority, and then incorporating a new, locally-autonomous 501(c)7 organization with by-laws that would enable us to be co-ed,” she wrote.
She added that she feels administrators have not adequately recognized the challenge that meeting their standards poses. In particular, she pointed to the difficulties social group leaders face when trying to shift their groups’ traditions and culture.
“Over the last year, the Theta leadership has worked tirelessly to figure out the best way to structurally build an organization from the ground up while also navigating the complex task of how to best approach integrating men into a space that was formerly designed for women,” Simkowitz wrote.
Fly Club graduate president Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 wrote in an email that he thinks many of the all-male final clubs, including his own, may consider admitting members of all gender identities in the future. But he added that they will always resist other parts of the policy: College oversight and the mandate to sever clubs’ graduate and undergraduate arms.
“The central issue is the organizational autonomy of self-sustaining off-campus social organizations that involve students and alumni and that make no use of Harvard’s name or resources,” Porteus wrote.
“‘Gender neutrality’ has been a Crimson herring, used by the administration to divert attention from other, indeed onerous requirements for official ‘recognition,’ supposedly the only alternative to sanctions,” he added.
Goldman declined to comment on the College’s requirement that organizations operate independently from a national or graduate board.
Despite the staunch holdouts, Ulian and Colleran both wrote that they are hopeful about the future of sanctions-compliant groups at the College.
“The Dean of Students Office is committed to engaging in regular dialogue with all of our social organizations to ensure that they are getting the most out of their time at Harvard College, and that they have the guidance and resources needed to meet their full potential,” Colleran wrote.
“I'm optimistic about the future of RSOs, and excited to see the ideas that new classes will bring,” Ulian wrote.
The sanctions have survived a series of internal reviews and repeatedly won the endorsement of the University’s top administrators. But the policy’s advocates also currently face an external challenge: a pair of lawsuits brought in December by a group of plaintiffs including the national organizations for several fraternities and sororities and three unnamed male final club members.
The suits allege that the sanctions infringe upon students’ freedom of association and discriminate against them on the basis of sex. After receiving competing filings from both sides in March and April, state and federal judges will decide whether to let the case move forward.
Administrators will also likely face their first real challenges enforcing the penalties in the coming months. As members of the Class of 2021 enter their junior year, they will be eligible for a growing number of the athletic captaincies and leadership positions that fall under the sanctions.
Though College officials have repeatedly denied that they will use an anonymous reporting system to seek out students who violate the policy, they have also declined to specify exactly what system they plan to use. Still, Ulian said that, after meeting with administrators, he is sure the sanctions have teeth.
As for students in recognized organizations, they must both continue to meet the administration’s standards and prove that they can flourish long-term.
Porteus wrote that, in the coming year, both administrators and RSOs have a steep climb ahead compared to some of the centuries-old final clubs.
“Harvard administrators have yet to prove that socially engineered student social organizations — conceived and policed by itinerant deans with no long-term commitment to Harvard — have a robust future independent of sanctions,” he wrote.
—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel contributed reporting.