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Harvard College’s three-year experiment in sanctioning unrecognized single-gender social organizations came to a sudden, quiet end in June. Though the announcement came in wake of a landmark Supreme Court decision, which debatably threatened the legal standing of the sanctions, the timing also feels rather convenient. With no undergraduates on campus — to protest or celebrate — it might have been an opportune moment for the University to drop a failing project.
Truthfully, we’re not all that sad to see sanctions go. The practical effect of their implementation was quashing social spaces for women (female-only final clubs are nearly gone, and all but one sorority has disappeared from campus) while more established, all-male social groups retreated into their gilded cocoons. And while Harvard exempted cross-school single-gender cultural groups from the sanctions, the University does not allow them to use campus resources — sending a rather ambiguous message about its support or lack thereof for cultural bonding along gendered lines.
In the post-sanctions era, Harvard has to think hard about how it can remedy some of this unintended damage. In particular, the University needs to make sure that the new social club landscape isn’t a total wash for the exclusively male and exceptionally wealthy groups that fared best during the brief sanctions moment. And it may already be trending in that direction, as the all-male Delphic Club and all-female Bee Club, which merged in 2017 just as sanctions were beginning, announced that they will be parting ways.
The College initially offered two rationales for targeting single-gender final clubs and Greek life: first, that they rewarded social exclusivity and economic privilege, and second, that these organizations are hotbeds for sexual assault. Both concerns are as valid now as they were then, but the College has displayed either an inability or unwillingness to offer answers about whether the end of the sanctions also marks the end of the University’s efforts to address these underlying issues. What grand strategy, if not sanctions, will address them?
There are also a plethora of other issues with the social club system at large: namely, how it entrenches socioeconomic and generational disparities, and cultivates a performative, competitive social dynamic. With sanctions, Harvard took a blanket — and largely ineffective — approach to solving these problems. In the post-sanctions world, the University should focus instead on applying targeted solutions that strengthen Title IX procedures, promote social alternative spaces to the clubs, and work to further foster diversity and inclusivity.
In recognition of our COVID-tinged world, Harvard should be working to create extensive, safe, on-campus social spaces so that students living in residence aren’t driven to socialize off-campus: a wilderness where the University has no control over social distancing and other health precautions. Other colleges are already leading the charge on this front: Harvard should take notes and copy winning schemes on campus.
But the pandemic will wane and eventually end, and with its passing the College will be crowded once more. Students returning to friends they have missed and those arriving for the first time will be craving college’s trademark rambunctious. Parties. Drinking. Loud Music. And we support them (so long as they’re blasting anything but Mr. Brightside). Still, all of that occurring within a healthier social environment should be possible. But the inescapable reality of the current social system at Harvard is that, as long as the University owns almost all the land in the area, final clubs and Greeks organizations with off-campus spaces will have a monopoly on two precious commodities: the ability to host parties that Harvard could or would not allow if it saw them and the social prestige attendant with that ability.
The solution, then, is likely twofold. First, Harvard needs to take an issue-specific approach to leveling social inequities and creating a safe and inclusive social environment. The University should lean heavily on the Title IX office to combat sexual misconduct; it should continue to develop a student body that is diverse and a culture that is inclusive; it should help students develop safe substance use practices; and it should open up channels of support and communication for students worried about or struggling with any of these issues.
Second, it needs to make ample space on campus for open and diverse socialization and community engagement — thoughtfully relaxing some of the restrictive policies that push students toward off-campus social clubs.
There’s no reason students need to rush back to final clubs when COVID-19 ends. But as it stands, we wouldn’t be shocked if they did. The University has work to do. A better, safer, more inclusive Saturday night is possible, but getting there won’t be easy.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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