Harvard Dean Refuses to Level With Single-Sex Clubs About Co-ed Push

In closed-door meeting, male and female members accuse administration of intimidating students

Rakesh Khurana

Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana / Harvard University

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The dean of Harvard College refused to level with representatives of the school’s single-sex final clubs about his plan to compel the all-male groups to go co-ed, indicating only that all options, including expelling students who joined the clubs, remain on the table.

Rakesh Khurana met behind closed doors with graduate and undergraduate representatives of the all-male and all-female final clubs on Wednesday, one month after a Harvard-commissioned task force recommended that the school bar students from joining the all-male groups as a way to combat sexual assault.

Khurana has pushed for months for the all-male final clubs to accept women, arguing that they are not "appropriate" for the university and saying that "nothing is off the table" to force the groups to go co-ed. At least two of the clubs, which have no formal relationship with the university, have caved to pressure from the administration. Wednesday evening’s meeting was the first to involve representatives from the all-female final clubs, which could be impacted if the administration adopts rules barring students from joining single-sex organizations.

Sources told the Washington Free Beacon that Khurana and other administrators provided no straight answers to a variety of questions about what next steps will be taken to eliminate the all-male groups and whether the all-female clubs or sororities and fraternities at Harvard will also be affected. Still, the administrators indicated that they may move to punish students who join the all-male clubs, which could involve expulsion.

"There were no clear answers given but there were strong hints that were deeply disturbing," Rick Porteus, the graduate president of the all-male Fly Club, told the Free Beacon in an interview. Porteus, who graduated from Harvard in 1978, said the administration indicated Wednesday that it is considering "penalizing" students who join single-sex organizations.

"That if you, for example, join a single-gender final club, you might be barred from applying for fellowships, you might be barred from being the captain of a team, you might be barred from elective office in a student organization that is approved by the college," Porteus said. "It’s shameful."

The reaction from the room was "stunned silence, and then indignation," Porteus said. When asked how they would enforce such rules, the administrators replied that students will understand that they are barred from joining these clubs when accepting admission to Harvard.

The administrators dodged questions about whether all-female final clubs will also be subjected to any rules created to punish all-male organizations. Khurana acknowledged that both sets of groups are unique, Porteus said, and that he wanted to avoid painting with a "broad brush."

"Even though they have completely ignored and disrespected the women’s organizations" by not including them in conversations, Porteus said, "they might leave them standing as single-gender organizations while exterminating the men’s single-gender organizations. That was a reasonable conclusion from what was said."

The meeting was the fourth between Khurana and representatives of the all-male clubs since September, none of which have had specific agendas. Khurana has on all occasions dodged questions about what specifically is "on the table" to force the clubs to become co-ed, leading Porteus to author an email to Khurana and three other administrators early Wednesday with specific inquiries to address during the meeting. The administrators did not acknowledge the email, Porteus said.

"What’s on the table could be your worst nightmare as an easily intimidated Harvard undergraduate because you're spending tens of thousands of dollars on your education, you’re concerned about your future, and suddenly you realize you have to make a choice between your freedom of association in your private life and your need to graduate from college with some sort of record that enables you to go forward," Porteus said.

Both the male and female attendees at the meeting criticized Khurana for intimidating student members of the clubs with the threat of administrative action.

"A number of graduate board members of the women’s and the men’s—but particularly the women’s final clubs—called out the dean on intimidating undergraduates," Porteus said.

A representative of one of the female groups, for example, "pointed out the unconscionable misuse of the power dynamic between the dean of the college and a student of that college and the dean pressuring that student to give up that student’s personal right of freedom of association," Porteus said.

The issue of sexual assault has fueled the administration’s assault on the all-male final clubs. A task force established to examine sexual assault at Harvard released a report in March accusing the all-male clubs of contributing to a "harmful sexual culture" on campus.

The task force, comprised of Harvard professors and graduates, pointed to data showing that 47 percent of female college seniors who reported being members of or "participating" in the final clubs experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. Women cannot become members of the all-male clubs but can join the all-female clubs.

The data did not include a statistic showing the rate at which female college seniors who did not belong to or participate in the final clubs experienced sexual assault.

The task force ultimately recommended that the university "either [not] allow simultaneous membership in final clubs and college enrollment; or allow clubs to transition to all-gender inclusion with equal gender membership and leadership," the latter of which would involve the university continuously monitoring the clubs. Harvard President Drew Faust said that the university will "move to implement" the recommendations in a letter to the Harvard community last month.

The issue has attracted national attention, with Vice President Joe Biden recently telling Mic that the university should "get rid" of the single-sex organizations if investigations found them to be contributing to sexual assault.

Representatives of the final clubs who have attended the meetings with Khurana said that sexual assault has never been the subject of the conversations.

"It was consistently brought up by male and female attendees, graduate and undergraduate leadership, that although the pretext for these meetings has been combatting sexual assault, we never discuss combatting sexual assault," Porteus told the Free Beacon. "That’s never the focus of the meetings, which is probably why there is never an agenda. The focus of the meetings is always how you are going to transition to co-ed membership."

The meeting was convened one day after the graduate president of the all-male Porcellian Club broke with tradition and openly criticized the administration for compelling the clubs to go co-ed.

"I sincerely hope that the administration will not set the precedent of creating a ‘blacklist’ of organizations that students cannot join. Such McCarthyism is a dangerous road that would be a blow to academic freedom, the spirit of tolerance, and the long tradition of free association on campus," Charles Storey, the graduate leader of the club, said in a Tuesday statement published by the Harvard Crimson.

Khurana asked the representatives of the all-male clubs to inform him by Friday whether they plan to transition to co-ed membership. For those that do not, the dean requested they provide a description of how they define themselves as a private club or organization, Porteus said.

A representative for the university did not return a request for comment. Khurana told the Crimson in a statement this week that the school continues to believe that the single-sex clubs are "at odds" with its view for the future.

"The College has for many months made it clear that the behaviors and attitudes espoused by unrecognized single-gender social organizations at Harvard College remain at odds with the aspirations of the 21st century society to which the College hopes and expects our students will contribute," Khurana said.

Morgan Chalfant   Email Morgan | Full Bio | RSS
Morgan Chalfant is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Morgan worked as a staff writer at Red Alert Politics. She also served as the year-long Collegiate Network fellow on the editorial page at USA TODAY from 2013-14. Morgan graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in English and Mathematics. Her Twitter handle is @mchalfant16.