Harvard’s Charge Against All-Male Final Clubs Unsubstantiated by Data, Report Says

Independent assessment commissioned by club pushes back on claims by sexual assault task force

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April 29, 2016

Administrators at Harvard University are unsubstantiated in their push to compel the school’s all-male final clubs to accept women in the name of combatting sexual assault, an independent statistical assessment has found.

The Porcellian Club, Harvard’s oldest final club, commissioned a third-party statistical report to examine a survey of sexual misconduct at Harvard that has fueled a university task force to recommend that the administration bar students from joining the all-male clubs because they contribute to a "harmful sexual culture" on campus.

The move is the latest in a battle between Harvard administrators who want to do away with the single-gendered clubs and graduate and undergraduate representatives of the organizations who argue that the administration is trampling on their rights to freely associate without sufficient cause.

Members of the Harvard Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault have pointed to statistics yielded by a Harvard-specific version of an AAU survey administered last year as proof that the all-male final clubs, which operate independently of the university, are a root of sexual assault on campus.

In its final report issued last month, the task force 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 clubs being monitored by the administration. Rakesh Khurana, Harvard’s undergraduate dean, has pressured the clubs behind closed doors to transition to co-ed membership.

However, an economist at Welch Consulting, an economic and statistical research company, examined the results produced by the AAU survey unique to Harvard and concluded that the survey "does not contain any data that would allow an analyst to support the recommendations of the Task Force that pertain to Final Clubs."

"Despite acknowledging the severe limitations of the survey data, the Task Force nevertheless makes strong and particular recommendations, purportedly based on the limited data," Jora Stixrud, the Welch Consulting economist who reviewed the data, wrote in the report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

"They recommend that single-gender final clubs should either be required to go co-ed and subject themselves to monitoring or should be disbanded completely. They do not appear to be bothered by the fact that their recommendation is not supported in any statistically justifiable way by any data or evidence from the survey."

The Porcellian Club sent the report to Khurana on Wednesday, accompanied by a letter from its graduate president reaffirming the club’s commitment to working with Harvard to curb sexual assault.

A university spokesman said the AAU survey speaks for itself.

"The final report of Harvard’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault and the sexual conduct survey results speak for themselves," said Jeff Neal, Harvard's chief spokesman. "Both are posted online and we welcome any interested party to review them in detail."

An economics professor who helped develop the AAU survey and is a member of the task force returned requests for comment by press time.

David Lawrence, the Porcellian Club’s graduate president, acknowledged that the club agrees with the "central message" of the task force’s final report and that it, along with the other final clubs and student organizations at Harvard, have "an important part to play in reducing sexual assault." He noted, however, that the club remains unaware of any reported allegations of sexual assaults occurring on the grounds of the Porcellian Club.

"We strongly object to repeated public statements by Harvard officials incorrectly implying that the 2015 AAU survey established statistically a direct connection between sexual assault and final clubs," Lawrence wrote. "Harvard’s persistent use of misleading talking points has distracted the public and the student body from the undisputed fact established by the Final Report that the vast majority of sexual assaults occur on Harvard property under Harvard control."

The letter followed a rare break in public silence from the Porcellian Club earlier this month when Charles Storey, the group’s former graduate president, criticized the administration for its management of the sexual assault issue and its efforts to push the final clubs to go co-ed. Storey later resigned from the position amid criticism of his remarks.

Representatives of the final clubs have expressed concern about the task force’s analysis of the survey data. Lawrence wrote that administrators have ignored the Porcellian Club’s offers to demonstrate the flaws of the task force’s interpretations, which prompted club leaders to reach out to Welch Consulting for an independent assessment.

Stixrud, the economist, took issue with two statistics referenced in the report. The first, which showed that 47 percent of female college seniors "participating" in final clubs experienced nonconsensual contact in their four years at the university, was taken by the task force to demonstrate that female students interacting socially with the final clubs experience sexual assault at a higher rate than those in other student organizations.

Stixrud wrote that the 47 percent result is "not informative as to whether or not the existence of single-gender Final Clubs increases the incidence of nonconsensual sexual contact," citing the basic teaching in statistics that "correlation does not imply causation." She noted that the next highest rate of nonconsensual sexual contact was reported among female seniors who are peer educators.

"Moreover, the causality argument is particularly weak in this instance because there is not even a claim—let alone survey evidence—that the specifics of the incidence(s) of nonconsensual sexual contact are at all related to involvement in the Final Clubs," the report concluded.

Stixrud also noted that the meaning of "participation" in final clubs presents an issue. Her report said there was a "wide range of reasonable interpretations" of the meaning of participation in a final club, and that hence "it is impossible from the survey data to know what the respondents actually meant when they said they were participants."

Stixrud also took issue with the figure demonstrating that 15.9 percent of female victims who experienced nonconsensual penetration on university property said that the incident occurred in an "other space used by a single-sex organization." Again, the task force took this to mean the final clubs.

That assumption is problematic, the economist wrote, not only because it was not validated that the respondents meant the final clubs when noting their response, but also because the final clubs are not located on university property.

Meanwhile, the survey found that 87 percent incidents of non-consensual penetration occurring on campus were reported in university dorms.

When announcing the release of the task force’s report last month, Harvard President Drew Faust specifically singled out the final clubs as an "issue" to address.

"The clear and powerful call for the University to address issues presented by final clubs relates not only to sexual assault but also to the implications of gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity on our campus," Faust wrote in an email to members of the Harvard community.

She said then that the university would move to implement the task force’s recommendations.

Khurana has engaged in talks with representatives of the all-male clubs for months about transitioning to co-ed membership. Two of the clubs have agreed to accept women while the six remaining all-male clubs have not bowed to the administration’s efforts.

During the most recent meeting, the first to include representatives from the five all-female clubs, Khurana indicated that the university could punish students who join the all-male clubs. Expulsion as punishment has not been taken off the table. Male and female representatives of the clubs criticized Khurana at the meeting for intimidating student members of the organizations by threatening administrative action.

Rick Porteus, the graduate president of the all-male Fly Club, wrote to Khurana earlier this week asking him to remove himself from talks with the clubs because of conflicts of interest and apparent "ethical impropriety," a request that the dean appeared to rebuff.

The university has not been clear about how it will implement the recommendations of the task force. Administrators have also not been clear about whether any sanctions involving students who join all-male final clubs would also apply to those who join the all-female final clubs or any other single-gender organizations at Harvard, such as sororities or fraternities.

The debate over the final clubs has attracted national attention, provoking opinions from Vice President Joe Biden, who suggested the university should "get rid" of the organizations, and others. Some, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, have knocked the university administration for suppressing students’ freedom to associate.

Khurana has criticized the media for not capturing the full picture.

"In some cases, I don’t think the media accurately characterizes our areas of focus and is actually sharing things like the task force report and its specific areas of concern," he recently told the Harvard Crimson.  

"Outside of Harvard, people don’t understand our specific histories, they don’t necessarily have the full appreciation for Harvard’s history with respect to the strides it’s made over the years in becoming a changing structure," Khurana further stated. "Many people don’t understand our changing student body and its needs and the changing nature of House life."