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In court filings this week, a trove of documents — including internal Harvard communications and official reports — were released as part of the federal lawsuit over sanctions on members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations.
The College announced a set of sanctions against members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations in 2016, barring those students from receiving athletics captaincies, leadership positions in extracurricular groups, and sponsorship for prestigious fellowships. First applied to the Class of 2021, the sanctions received intense scrutiny and spawned a pair of lawsuits in state court and federal court.
On Monday, however, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced Harvard will drop the sanctions following a landmark United States Supreme Court Case, Bostock v. Clayton County, which Harvard said made clear federal courts would rule against the social group policies.
The filings came as part of an injunction filed by the plaintiffs in the federal case on the same day as Bacow’s announcement, obtained during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.
The documents, which date back to 2015, chronicle efforts by, among others, former University President Drew G. Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana — both of whom were principal architects and supporters of the sanctions — to form and implement the sanctions policy.
College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the documents.
The earliest document dates back to March 2015, where in an email to the College’s Dean of Administration and Finance Sheila C. Thimba, Khurana proposes three possible paths: “reform the Clubs,” “marginalize their importance on campus,” or take “more dramatic action.”
In her response, Thimba wrote that the abolition of final clubs should not be the College’s end goal.
“Marginalizing the clubs as you've described means creating real competition for their brand of entertainment - better parties elsewhere where we have more control of the gender dynamics (and alcohol consumption),” she wrote. “I don't think shutting them down ought to be our goal. It's too assailable and it'll harden the resistance. I'm not sure what other dramatic actions there are.”
The documents also show that, in the early phase of conceiving the sanctions, administrators and committees struggled to define the scope of their task and combat misconceptions about the sanctions that developed among Harvard affiliates.
Chief among these was the perception that administrators developed the sanctions in order to combat sexual assaults reported in final clubs. According to one document — a list of talking points sent by Thimba to Khurana — the proportion of total sexual assault reports occurring in final clubs from the same year totaled 15 percent. The list goes on to note that the emphasis should be placed on the “outsize influence” of final clubs on campus, rather than on assault.
In the 2016 minutes of an Implementation Committee outreach meeting, students questioned whether the policies sought to curb sexual assault reports at final clubs.
Kay K. Shelemay — a professor of Music and African and African American Studies — told the students outright that the policy would not be meant to address sexual assault.
“Our formal charge is to address non-discrimination, not sexual assault,” she said.
A student — identified only as a member of the Harvard Islamic Society — said they found the strategy of focusing gender discrimination puzzling.
“Your committee is trying to address a cultural problem, through a strange policy by attacking gender,” they said. “But we know it's actually a problem of a culture that tolerates inequality and sexism.”
Several of the documents also addressed the fact that some groups affected by the sanctions would be collateral damage as part of the larger effort to reform or shutter final clubs. After sanctions went into effect, student interest in sororities plummeted, eventually resulting in the end of once-all female social groups, though sorority Alpha Phi returned four months after they initially decided to shutter.
In the same outreach meeting, students questioned what impact the sanctions might have on such groups, and asked if the committee had considered them. In response Shelemay acknowledged that this could be a blind spot in the policies.
“We're aware of this hiccup in the policy and the possibility of collateral damage to other orgs with meritorious goals,” she said. “We are going to try to protect against collateral damage to organizations that are trying to do good work.”
Concern that women’s single-gender groups would be “collateral damage” surfaced in several other filings, including a May 2016 correspondence between Khurana and Jane Rosenzweig, director of the Writing Center. In an email, Rosenzweig wrote that acknowledging the formation of single-gender women’s groups as a reactionary counterbalance to “male-dominated culture” was a way to justify sanctions that would affect women as well.
“In other words, yes, it makes perfect sense that women found value in these organizations while they were shut out of access to others, but there is something wrong with the fact that they had to do this in the first place,” she wrote.
“Exactly the point we would like to make,” Khurana wrote in response. “I don't want to institutionalize ‘separate but equal.’”
Khurana also sought advice from Former University President Lawrence H. Summers. In a 2016 email chain, Summers advised Khurana to focus on the “exclusivity” of clubs rather than the single-gender aspect. He also warned about the power of final club alumni.
“I'd be careful here. The Harvard Corp for many years even after [Faust] was president had members who were members of all male clubs!” Summers wrote.
Khurana also asked Summers for his opinion on more recently-formed fraternities and sororities at the College.
“I hate all of it,” Summers replied.
While the Supreme Court, not the Executive Branch, ultimately felled the sanctions, Khurana also commented on how the 2016 presidential election might impact the policies in the same email chain with Summers.
“It is a free country, but the Office of Civil Rights (which I will take as a representative of the country and assuming that the next President will likely be from the Democratic Party) insists that we have a responsibility for students--for all our students--including when they are in private spaces that are not controlled by the university,” he wrote.
Several documents in the court filings reveal Harvard’s concern about alumni reaction to the sanctions. A presentation given to the Harvard Corporation in January 2016 acknowledged the perception that the University will not act because it “fears” alumni. A 2017 report to the Board of Overseers also noted that Harvard’s historical difficulties dealing with final clubs were exacerbated by alumni involvement.
“Because Harvard withdrew recognition from the male Final Clubs more than 30 years ago, this issue has been chronically difficult to address, and the problem has been compounded by the intercession of the Alumni of some of the Clubs who are reluctant to change long-standing policies,” the report states.
The court filings also include communications from several alumni to Khurana criticizing the policy. In a 2016 email, Rachael A. Wagner ’04 criticized the policy and argued it unfairly hurt women’s groups. Wagner attributed winning her Rhodes Scholarship to the confidence she gained as a member of the Seneca.
“The way to win the battle against the male final clubs (and against sexual assault, since isn’t that really what you're trying to prevent?) isn’t to infringe on students’ rights to associate with whomever they like, especially when they are doing so on their own time with their own resources, but rather to provide a more attractive supply of social spaces and social events that will make the all-male final clubs’ parties less appealing by comparison,” she wrote.
In two emails sent in May and July 2017, Papa R. Chakravarthy ’12 said he would withhold donations to the University in protesty of the policy.
The second email, which questioned the process of developing sanctions as well as Khurana’s motivation, prompted a strongly worded response from the Dean.
“Papa—I want to ask you a question: do you think this controversy is enjoyable for me or anyone at the College?” Khurana wrote. “Harvard’s culture of belonging and inclusion needs to be improved in order to attract the best students and faculty.”
“I am not perfect. My students and colleagues know me as a candid and trustworthy person. I am glad to engage you on substance, but would appreciate you leaving out the ad hominem accusations about my motivations,” he added.
—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.
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