Harvard College’s crusade to make final clubs go co-ed must seem a remarkable success in its eyes. This year two of the all-male clubs accepted their first female members. And despite indignation from some, if the College continues to “force hands,” it appears that the eventual compliance of all eight male clubs might be inevitable, whether that’s five, ten, or 25 years down the line.
But within this grand solution lies a larger problem for Harvard—and that’s fraternities. Full disclosure: I’m part of an all-male fraternity on campus myself.
Momentarily disregard single-sex organizations like the Black and Asian Student Associations, which have cultural purposes, and Harvard’s five female final clubs, which lack the same saga around sexism and sexual assault. In line with the College’s discernible vision, a day will come when all of the once-male final clubs are co-ed, and the College will next have to decide whether to go after its five fraternities. Neither choice will be pretty.
If the College looks past fraternities as single-sex organizations, it’s an abandonment of principle. The College has confronted final clubs in the name of equalizing campus social spaces among sexes. And yes, final clubs have grander houses, bigger parties, and more tainted slates than the fraternities on campus. But both types of groups are fundamentally similar: They mix with sororities, host parties, and hold brotherhood events.
After all, many of the final clubs evolved out of fraternity chapters (the Delphic Club from Delta Phi; the AD club from Alpha Delta Phi; the Spee Club from Zeta Psi). Failing to follow up with the fraternities would be nothing short of blatant hypocrisy.
But now let’s say Harvard stands by its principles and goes after fraternities with the same pressure to go co-ed. Herein lies the biggest problem.
Fraternities have tremendous power in the US. FratPAC, the political action committee representing Greek life interests, spent almost half a million dollars in the off-peak 2014 election cycle alone. The North American Fraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, the country’s largest umbrella organizations of fraternities and sororities, recently hired a former US senator to lobby against a bill in Congress that would limit colleges’ abilities to punish students accused of sexual assault.
Just as important, Greek organizations have alumni with influence. Historically, 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives, 71 percent of the men in “Who’s Who in America,” and 76 percent of US senators were in college fraternities.
If Harvard hates anything, it’s a drop of bad press. In this case, Harvard would be weathering itself for a storm—one that’s head and shoulders above the capacity of the oft-fabled final club graduate boards. Legal experts can agree all they want that Harvard, as a private university, can limit students’ associations. Several smaller schools like Amherst College have tried banning students from joining fraternities, with results to be seen. But legality doesn’t mean practicality.
One Atlantic piece put it, “This is why—to answer the vexing question ‘why don’t colleges just get rid of their bad fraternities?’—the system, and its individual frats, have only grown in power and influence. Indeed, in many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.”
This isn’t an argument about whether Harvard’s final clubs and fraternities should go co-ed. There are strong arguments on both sides for the freedom of association and for more inclusive social spaces on campus. This is an argument that the College’s campaign to make final clubs go co-ed might be a battle not worth picking, or at least one with larger consequences than Harvard suspects.
Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.
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