Harvard University’s undergraduate dean is angering alumni by attempting to force the school’s all-male final clubs to accept women, a move that some say threatens freedom of association and diversity at one of the nation’s most elite colleges.
According to Harvard alumni and former members of all-male final clubs, Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, appointed to his post in 2014, is prepared to make it against university rules to join the groups.
The dean delivered a “veiled threat” to graduate members of the clubs during a closed-door meeting last fall that “students who joined any of the clubs would be subject to expulsion,” one alumnus and graduate member of a final club said.
“He has as much as said, ‘This is what we foresee,’” the alumnus continued. “If the clubs don’t agree to these changes, harsher things will happen.”
Alumni described the threat as the “Amherst option,” a reference to the way Amherst College banned off-campus fraternities and sororities.
The clubs, which operate like off-campus fraternities, have no formal relationship with the university, and some alumni are characterizing Khurana’s actions as coercion.
Khurana has attempted to justify his effort by claiming that the clubs are exclusive, elitist, and not “appropriate” for the university.
Several Harvard graduates vehemently criticized Khurana’s campaign against the final clubs in interviews, accusing the dean of trying to suppress students’ freedom of association and shut down groups he doesn’t like.
“He is really here attacking diversity. The clubs are part of Harvard’s diversity,” Bartle Bull, a 1964 Harvard Law graduate who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, said of Khurana’s efforts. Bull said that the administration is “working against diversity, tolerance, and the freedom of association.”
Khurana has been vague in his public statements about the clubs, saying that nothing is “off the table” when it comes to compelling them to accept women. He would not rule out the possibility that administrators will make it against school rules to join the all-male final clubs in an interview with the Crimson.
Khurana has also confirmed that he is working on a set of recommended changes for the rules governing campus social life and unrecognized social groups, which include final clubs, but has not offered information on what they will include or when they will be completed and released.
It is unclear whether the administration will also apply pressure to the five all-female final clubs, whose representatives have reportedly not been present at the meetings between Khurana and final club graduates. Several alumni indicated that Khurana could go after other single-sex organizations at the school, including sports teams and a cappella groups.
At least two of the eight all-male final clubs at Harvard have already acceded to pressure from administrators. Both the Spee Club and the Fox Club have decided to accept women. The Fox Club claims to have been “forced” by the administration to change.
“Harvard University has applied tremendous pressure on all of the clubs to go co-ed. We now believe that our individual reputations and careers, as well as the reputation, autonomy and existence of the Fox Club going forward, are at serious risk if we do not act by November 1,” the Fox Club’s undergraduate officers wrote in an October letter to graduates that was obtained by The Crimson.
The letter also indicated that Khurana is likely to make affiliation with the clubs grounds for expulsion from the school.
“Khurana has made it clear that when the University says final clubs must go co-ed … the University will promulgate a standardized plan mandating a specific process that all non-coed clubs must follow. Additionally, any student affiliated with a non-compliant club will likely be required to disaffiliate from that club in order to remain enrolled at Harvard,” the letter read.
“His policy of intimidation has worked,”one alumnus and final club member said.
The alumnus described Khurana’s role in the matter as that of an “intimidating bully.” He surmised that, if the rest of the final clubs do not admit women, the administration would amend the student handbook in time for the next school year to include penalties for joining all-male clubs.
“The role of single-sex groups on campus should be decided by students, not administrators,” another alumnus said. “Harvard should stand for intellectual freedom and open debate and should set a clear precedent of protecting minority viewpoints — especially those viewpoints with which the current administration disagrees.”
“Do we want a Harvard where students are forced to choose between their beliefs about single-gender organizations and their ability to attend Harvard? If single-gender organizations are the target of a purge today, what other student groups will suffer in the future?” the alumnus added.
Part of Khurana’s argument against the male final clubs involves Harvard’s effort to combat sexual assault. According to a survey about sexual assault at Harvard that was released last September, more than 15 percent of the sexual assaults involving “nonconsensual penetration” that occurred on university property were committed in spaces used by a single-sex organization.
Khurana and other administrators, alumni said, have pointed to this figure as evidence that all-male final clubs are a source of rape at Harvard. However, the final clubs are not located on campus, meaning that the figure cannot describe sexual assaults that occur at final clubs. One alumnus accused the administration of committing “blatant intellectual dishonesty” by peddling the figure as a reason to fundamentally change the clubs.
Meanwhile, the study found that 87 percent of these sexual assaults occur in university dorms on campus, which led another Harvard graduate to suggest that Khurana could better spend his time figuring out how to stop sexual assaults that occur on the administration’s watch.
“[Members of the administration] have not offered any solutions to how they’re going to stop this on their own property,” the alumnus said.
Khurana was unavailable to comment. A spokesperson for Harvard College said that Khurana is actively engaging with the college’s social organizations “to discuss campus resources and expectations and, further, to discuss ways these organizations can better align with Harvard College’s important mission of providing a transformative experience intellectually, socially, and emotionally.”
The spokesperson said that Khurana has asked social groups at Harvard to reflect on whether their values “align” with the mission of the school.
When asked to address reports that Khurana had threatened to make it against university rules to join all-male final clubs, the spokesperson declined to comment.
The campaign against the final clubs is not Khurana’s only effort to bring change to Harvard. The undergraduate dean was also behind the decision to discontinue the decades-old title of “house master” following complaints that it has roots in slavery. Others have argued that the term, alternatively, has origins in education.
“Harvard as an institution has been more and more controlling in the name of liberalism,” Bull, who worked as a civil rights attorney after graduating from Harvard, said.
Alumni also pointed to placemats promoting liberal political opinions that popped up in an undergraduate dining hall last month as further evidence of “politically correct” ideology at Harvard. After the holiday place mats promoting “social justice” sparked outrage among both liberal and conservative students, the deans of student life and freshmen, both of whom work under Khurana, were forced to apologize.
“[This] sufficiently damages the brand equity of the school,” one alumnus commented. “What kind of values are they trying to impose on students?”