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Khurana Defends Principles Behind Defunct Social Group Sanctions

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, pictured here in February 2020, defended the principle behind Harvard's sanctions targeting single gender social organizations in a Friday interview — his first since the University dropped the policy this summer.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, pictured here in February 2020, defended the principle behind Harvard's sanctions targeting single gender social organizations in a Friday interview — his first since the University dropped the policy this summer. By Amanda Y. Su
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana defended the principle behind Harvard’s sanctions targeting single gender social organizations in a Friday interview — his first since the University dropped the policy this summer.

The sanctions barred members of single-gender social organizations from receiving College endorsement for fellowships or holding sports captaincies and leadership positions in extracurricular groups. The policy spawned twin state and federal lawsuits by a group of fraternities, sororities, and anonymous students.

Those legal challenges ultimately proved fatal to the social group policy Khurana championed. University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in June that administrators believed federal courts would bar Harvard from enforcing the sanctions after a Supreme Court decision affirmed precedents central to the plaintiff’s case.

Though Khurana said he understood why dropping the sanctions was necessary, he also said the College remains committed to the ideas that underlay them.

“The policy was motivated by a strong belief that — whatever backgrounds and identities students have — they should have access to all the opportunities the College has to offer,” he said. “Discrimination based on how one identifies with respect to gender should not be part of the Harvard story in this 21st century.”

He added that the nation’s current reckoning with racial injustice should open up a moment for students to critically examine the ways in which they themselves — or the institutions to which they belong — perpetuate inequality.

“If anything, what this summer has shown is that this is a moment for all of our institutions to think about our practices that we’ve often taken for granted and naturalized, and to think about how they either help us move toward a more inclusive society and equitable society, or to think about how they perpetuate inequalities both within our campus and beyond,” he said.

Khurana first proposed the sanctions — the highest-profile undertaking of his tenure as dean — in April 2016, at a closed-door meeting with final club leadership. A month later, former University President Drew G. Faust approved a public proposal to regulate unrecognized single gender organizations, which Khurana said he devised in response to the recommendations of a University-wide report on sexual assault prevention.

In December 2017, the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, voted to support the sanctions. The unusual intervention in undergraduate life was meant to ensure the decision extended beyond Faust’s presidency after she stepped down in June 2018.

Since they were implemented four years ago, the sanctions compelled nearly all of Harvard’s all-female social organizations to admit men, while largely failing to alter the membership rules of male-only groups. The co-ed Delphic-Bee Club, for one, announced it would split into the all-male Delphic Club and the all-female Bee Club three years after merging last month, according to club affiliates. The split came one month after Harvard rolled back its policy.

Khurana said he trusts students to hold themselves to high standards of inclusion.

“I have such faith in our students to continually advocate for inclusion, to understand how important it is to dismantle those structures of inequality that have left so many in pain, and to help be the type of people who are going to restore the social fabric,” he said.

Still, interest in single-gender groups appears to be rising after the sanctions’s demise. Nearly 40 percent of students in the Class of 2024 indicated in a Crimson survey that they strongly or somewhat favored the College’s decision to drop the sanctions. Meanwhile, 11 percent of the class indicated that they were “very interested” in joining a final club — up from 4.7 percent last year.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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CollegeCollege AdministrationFinal ClubsFront FeatureCollege NewsRakesh KhuranaSocial Group Sanctions