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‘Through the Back Door’: Unrecognized Student Groups Meet Amid Club Freeze

Undergraduates expressed furstration at Harvard's year-long pause on recognition of student organizations.
Undergraduates expressed furstration at Harvard's year-long pause on recognition of student organizations. By Michael Hu
By Natalie K Bandura and Azusa M. Lippit, Crimson Staff Writers

In the wake of Harvard’s year-long pause on recognition of student organizations, undergraduates expressed frustration at having to start new clubs “through the back door.”

The new policy — announced by the Dean of Students Office in September — stated that no newly formed student organizations would be officially recognized during the 2023-24 academic year. There are currently more than 470 recognized independent student organizations.

Unrecognized clubs are not able to access established Harvard mailing lists, receive a table at the Club Fair, or book meeting spaces via RoomBook, the College’s internal room reservation system. They are also prohibited from accessing official club funding sources. The Harvard Undergraduate Association is tasked with doling out funding for student organizations using the Student Activities Fund — a collection of $200 payments students can opt-out of depositing upon enrollment.

While registered student groups faced reinforced naming restrictions in early 2023, unregistered student groups are prohibited from including “Harvard” in their organization’s official name. Several students decided to continue to start organizations despite their unregistered status.

Last summer, Maibritt M. M. Henkel ’25 reached out to the DSO to inquire about establishing Rethinking Economics — a group that strives to find new solutions to economic challenges. Due to the freeze, she said she was told she would have to wait another year to apply.

“It’s so embarrassing,” Henkel said. “Every time I have to book a room for an event, I have to ask all my friends, see if anyone knows someone who has access.”

“It would be so much easier not to have to go through the back door,” she added.

Despite these barriers, last fall, Rethinking Economics held three speaker sessions, a book club, and an event for students to present their research.

Many of the new unregistered clubs cater to underrepresented groups, according to Harvard Undergraduate Association Co-President John S. Cooke ’25.

One such group is the Kurdish Cultural Association, which Dalal M. Hassane ’26 planned to establish last spring.

“We really wanted to make this an official student group, organizing educational events with regard to the Kurdish liberation movement” Hassane, a Crimson Editorial Editor, said.

“As an unofficial student org, it is a little bit difficult,” she added, explaining that gaining attention among students is particularly challenging as unrecognized organizations are barred from using Harvard’s trademarks.

“It’s really unfortunate that we can’t use the Harvard name,” Hassane said.

According to Cooke, about 25 to 50 student groups would apply to start a new club in a typical year prior to the freeze. Not all clubs would be approved by the DSO, especially if the organization’s purpose closely matches a pre-existing club. In the years leading up to the freeze, Cooke said the DSO has been “very judicious” with which clubs they would approve.

According to Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo, the club freeze was implemented to facilitate “a thorough assessment of both the existing organizations currently in operation and the structure that supports our independent student organization community.”

Harvard Undergraduate Plant Based, an unregistered student organization that aims to create a community for students interested in the plant-centric food system, had initially applied to be a registered student group in Fall 2022. Navin S. Durbhakula ’25, the group’s president, said he was “shocked” to learn that the application was denied.

“My impression was that most student groups apply as an idea started by people with the hopes of building it up after they get recognized, but prior to being recognized, we already had a leadership board of like 10 people,” Durbhakula said. “We’d already shown that there was a clear need and interest for this on campus.”

The group had planned to reapply this fall, but their plans were halted by the freeze in club recognition.

Some organizations with a focus on campus activism deliberately choose to operate unregistered.

Harvard Feminist Coalition, a group formerly known as Our Harvard Can Do Better, has been unrecognized since its 2012 founding but changed its name last September. Rosie P. Couture ’26, an organizer with Harvard Feminist Coalition, said the name change has nothing to do with Harvard’s early 2023 updated club naming guidelines.

“We’re not affiliated with the College or registered as a club at all, which was an intentional decision because we didn’t want to be governed by any of the guidelines or requirements of the College, especially as an organization that is actively organizing against the College,” Couture said.

Henkel, the founder of Rethinking Economics, pointed to the “boom and bust cycle” of club establishment in recent years.

“I think it’s great that the school was trying to filter out the inactive clubs,” Henkel said. “But I mean, this is really coming at a high price for the students who are motivated this year and wanted to start something this year.”

​​—Staff writer Natalie K Bandura can be reached at natalie.bandura@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at azusa.lippit@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

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