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Open Up

Why transparency in final clubs is necessary

By Brianna J. Suslovic

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about final clubs with my roommate. In the months following, backlash ensued, most vocally from final club alumni.

I’m not sorry for writing the piece. The piece was intended to provoke conversation and action, and I believe it did. Later that semester, a list of final club members was released, disrupting the frustrating secrecy surrounding current club membership. Everyone assumed that my roommate and I had somehow infiltrated the clubs to get their membership lists, but I can assure you that we don’t have the connections to make that happen. Yes, the op-ed and lists were met with backlash, but this re-ignited a public conversation that has needed to happen since I arrived on campus three years ago­. However, due to the clubs’ lack of transparency and no-press policies, the public discourse surrounding the clubs remains incomplete and one-sided.

Individual members of the clubs reached out to me following the publication of the opinion piece –and the publication of their names. They wondered why I didn’t believe in the value of final clubs. Club members told me about their incredibly positive and affirming experiences in getting to know fellow club members and developing the sorts of long-lasting, deep social bonds that one comes to college to develop. Club members cited the value of accessing networks that they didn’t ever think they would be able to access. Club members told me about how accepting their clubs were, and they asked me why I wasn’t satisfied with their steps toward gender integration—even as they wrote to their graduate boards claiming that Harvard’s administration had “forced [their] hand.”

The most frustrating part of all of this is that I still don’t have a sense of who to talk to about my concerns with final clubs. When final clubs aren’t transparent about membership or punch processes, I’m unable to openly or publicly converse with members of the clubs about my concerns, which only stymies the potential for positive change. This leaves me shouting into the public sphere via The Crimson editorial page.

I want to have nuanced conversations about how to transfer the benefits of club membership to more students. Why is it that club membership is a prerequisite for bonding with an exclusive composite of Harvard men or women, having get-togethers in a mansion on Mount Auburn Street, or accessing a successful and tight-knit alumni network when considering plans for the future? It’s great that final club members are able to take advantage of these positive aspects, but it’s disheartening to me that our campus doesn’t challenge the exclusionary way that these benefits are distributed.

To current members of final clubs, let me be clear: I don’t believe that all members of final clubs are bad people. I don’t accuse or blame you. I believe that by virtue of excluding people on the basis of who they are—what school they went to, who they already know, the way they interact with members of the club—final clubs do some level of harm to the campus community at large. Further, when these clubs answer to graduate boards whose presidents conceptualize college women as liabilities, I become concerned about the ability of these clubs to exist autonomously, without actively harming other students.

This week at lunch, a friend asked me, “Do you think that people would insert final clubs into their ideal Harvard social scene?” My response: “I hope not, but I can’t speak for people in final clubs.” From what I am able to glean as an outsider who has never been offered or granted access, final clubs don’t model healthy or equal social relations—they’re based upon the constructed power dynamics between students choosing and students wanting to be chosen, whether through the punch process or at parties. Those power dynamics are tied to social markers: where you went to high school, whether your parent was in the club, where you’re from, or whether you’re a good “fit” in the club’s social atmosphere.

To be honest, there are other important things on campus to discuss. I don’t want final clubs to distract from other important campus concerns anymore, but I don’t want to stop pushing my classmates on it. Final clubs are part of a larger conversation about social space on campus, and we need to challenge each other—and the administration—on how to expand social options beyond the club. We need transparency in order to most effectively do this. I’m politely asking clubs to open up about the ways they choose membership—and about who their members are—in order to create a better social scene for all members of the campus community.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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