It is taking a long time to kill Harvard’s legendary clubs or at least pressure recalcitrant clubs to co-educate.
The future Newsweek editor Evan W. Thomas wrote gleefully of their apparent demise in the 1971 Crimson. He disdained the clubs as refuges of “unfreaked out preppies, rich foreigners, social climbers, and sophomores who like to shoot pool and get drunk,” which was pretty funny — and true.
But times have changed. About 30 percent of Harvard’s 6,500 undergraduates today belong to one of the six all-male final clubs, five all-female final clubs, and nine fraternities and sororities or other single-sex organizations. Clubs are popular and burgeoning. They are the hub of social life and fun on campus.
Many faculty at Harvard would like to say good-bye and good riddance. After all, clubs and fraternities are red-hot centers of white privilege and rape culture. At least fraternity haters — and they are legion — want everyone to think so.
Failing that, they are compelling single-sex clubs to co-educate. Harvard’s defenders say bad behavior and “deeply misogynistic” attitudes in the clubs make current moves imperative. Gender exclusivity and elitism are at issue, according to the Crimson.
No doubt Harvard’s clubs have a dark side, if that’s what you are looking for. Parties invitations favor members, invited pals, and pretty girls, who can become fair game in collegiate hook-up culture. Allegations of rape and threats of litigation have hung like thunderclouds over emotional discourse in Cambridge all year.
What’s extremely disturbing? Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and her point man, College Dean Rakesh Khurana, are abusing basic principles of freedom of association and privacy. They are trying to control student behavior off-campus to conform to political dogma and make students share it or pay a price. Their edicts provide a chilling lesson on “how power can be abused to enforce monolithic ways of thinking and living,” say dissenting candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers.
Non-compliance penalties are draconian. Incoming club members will no longer be eligible to run student organizations, qualify for sought-after scholarships like the Rhodes or Marshall, or captain sports teams.
“Harvard will form a group of faculty, students and administrators to help implement the new policy and to devise enforcement options,” said the Associated Press. “Harvard hasn’t said how it will identify which students are members of the famously secretive final clubs.”
Indeed, enforcement “could present a logistical headache,” the Crimson noted. How do authorities plan to find out just who belongs to what group? Is Harvard threatening to create a student blacklist and rely on undercover informers?
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of Owl?”
I have mixed feelings about clubs, as do many others. A few mean boys and girls exist who revel in exclusion and bullying. They can leave scars. Yet adolescent tribalism is atavistic. Trying to kill camaraderie — and fun — on account of identity politics and presumed historical privilege may not be illegal. But it is highly offensive and tone-deaf.
Yes, it is true. Final clubs and fraternities favor the extroverted. Money, looks, wit, and having cool moves help socially, along with a winning personality. They make one a sought-after club prospect, oddly enough. Human appeal endures the diversity baroque of our times. A patrician, prepped-out background is immaterial compared to wit and cool moves, but for club haters, it’s always 1900 and the painful tyranny of St. Grottlesex never ends.
Khurana is a very slick item. Since his appointment two years ago, the former Harvard Business School professor has aggressively challenged Harvard’s status quo. In a 2014 open letter to Harvard students Khurana proclaimed, “diversity of our student body at Harvard College should be on the forefront” of a “paradigm shift.”
Khurana’s ways of inducing approved thought are energetic and novel. Last December, he stood behind risible holiday lessons in political correctness printed on college dining hall placemats, which were quickly withdrawn after ridicule.
Some Harvard observers wonder what an HBS professor is doing in charge of the College in the first place. Khurana is actually a Ph.D. in organizational sociology who writes in the Zombie-Orwell style of the au fait academic. The “discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances,” he wrote of the clubs in a May 6 open letter to Faust.
Spaces that are rife with power imbalances! That’s a good one, Rakesh.
“The most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men. In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community,” Khurana added.
Entrenched spaces! Preserves! Networks of power! Propagate exclusionary values! Rakesh pulled out on the stops of his Zombie-Orwell organ.
“Although the fraternities, sororities and final clubs are not formally recognized by the college, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values,” Faust responded. “The college cannot ignore these organizations if it is to advance our shared commitment to broadening opportunity and making Harvard a campus for all of its students.”
Actually, it can and should. These organizations are not part of the university. In 1984, the old final clubs severed ties after rejecting an ultimatum to go co-ed. They are autonomous and financially independent. Harvard clubs have no affiliation with the university. It is none of Harvard’s business what non-university groups its students belong to.
Freedom of association as it is understood in law does not restrict a private institution such as Harvard from doing what it is doing. The university has wide latitude and courts are reluctant to intervene. The courts have held for a long time that colleges and universities have great freedom to regulate student affairs.
No lawyer has come up with any kind of way for the clubs to sue Harvard over coerced co-education. By their own admission they have no relationship to the university and no standing to sue.
The Harvard clubs now face pressure to do what Princeton’s eating clubs and Yale’s secret societies did long ago and open up membership to Harvard’s women. Princeton clubs sued and wasted ten years in court. They lost. Nobody bothered to sue at Yale’s secret societies because they knew they wouldn’t win. They decided to go co-ed along with the rest of the university.
Co-education of Harvard’s clubs is inevitable and overdue, many think. They will eventually acquiesce. If they don’t, the university could try to impose an outright ban. But how can Harvard ban something over which it has no legal authority? A spectacular, unwanted, expensive test case down the road is not out of the question.
Meanwhile, Harvard’s power play to force clubs to yield to its fiat — instead of outright proscription — is ugly and autocratic. The attempt to stigmatize membership in time-honored institutions with independent charters is more than alarming. Where does campus policing of private behavior and association end? Where does thought control begin?
Photo credit: Harvard.com