Students, Activists Decry Harvard Sanctions on Single-Sex Groups

Hundreds email university president urging administration to reverse new policy

Harvard University / AP
May 10, 2016

Harvard University administrators are facing intense criticism from students and activists after establishing a policy that will sanction students who become members of unrecognized single-sex organizations.

The policy, announced by Harvard president Drew Faust and undergraduate dean Rakesh Khurana on Friday, will bar students who join unaffiliated single-sex organizations from holding official leadership positions in student groups and on athletic teams. Students who join these groups—which include the all-male and all-female "final clubs" as well as fraternities and sororities—will also be blocked from receiving endorsement letters from the dean for fellowships, such as the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

The policy, which will affect students who matriculate at Harvard beginning in the 2017 academic year, has been couched by administrators as an effort to combat gender discrimination and promote inclusion on campus.

"I think it’s heavy-handed of the administration to try correcting social ills by blackballing members of sororities, fraternities, and final clubs from scholarship endorsement or leadership positions—essentially torpedoing their future employment prospects," Idrees Kahloon, a senior at Harvard, told the Washington Free Beacon Monday. "There are real problems with Harvard’s social scene, but I don’t think that this mandate is the right way of going about it."

The announcement provoked a wave of criticism on social media and spurred whispers of campus protests to thwart the administration. It also precipitated a sharp rebuke from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a group that advocates for free speech and individual rights at colleges and universities nationwide. The group accused Harvard of launching a "stunning attack on freedom of association" and "blacklisting" members of the single-sex groups, which operate independently of the university.

"Harvard’s decision simply demonstrates that it is willing to sacrifice students’ basic freedom of association to the whims of whoever occupies the administrative suites today," said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney and co-founder of FIRE who attended Harvard Law School. "Who’s to say that Harvard’s leaders five years from now won’t decide that Catholics or Republicans should be blacklisted because they might not line up with Harvard’s preferred values?"

FIRE has also set up a web page where individuals can write to Faust to urge her to reverse the policy punishing students who join the single-sex organizations. A spokesman for the group told the Free Beacon that more than 500 emails have been sent to Faust through the web page in a matter of days.

Current students and graduates have railed against the policy. Catherine Katz, a Harvard graduate and member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, wrote an "open letter" to Harvard on Medium accusing the administration of undermining the university’s stated mission and exercising "inappropriate institutional overreach."

"While I am in full agreement that changes need to be made to foster a safe, welcoming, and diverse campus environment, the overreaching and overly aggressive approach is reflective of broader national sentiment," Katz wrote.

"When you eliminate conversation and a meeting of the minds, resentment festers and people flock to more extreme modes of expression. In the political realm, candidates such as Donald Trump represent this type of reactionary, resentful expression. Ironically, in an attempt to distance itself from any questionable associations or activity, Harvard is directly contributing to the aura of resentment off of which populists like Trump feed."

Khurana, who developed the policy, characterized it as an effort to combat "gender discrimination" at Harvard in a letter to Faust Friday.

"The discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances," Khurana wrote. "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."

Faust endorsed the policy as necessary to promote "inclusion" and "address deeply rooted gender attitudes" at Harvard.

Khurana has been privately meeting with representatives of the final clubs for months to compel them to transition to co-ed membership. While the dean’s efforts appeared to target only the all-male final clubs, the administration has made it clear that members of fraternities, sororities, and the all-female clubs will also be subject to punishment.

The administration will continue to "work with" the single-sex organizations to transition to co-ed membership practices, Khurana’s letter indicated. Harvard will also convene an advisory group comprised of faculty, students, and administrators in order to enforce the new policy.

In an emailed statement to the Free Beacon, Khurana did not address criticisms of the policy but emphasized the administration’s commitment to fostering an "inclusive" community.

"Harvard College is committed to building an inclusive campus community where all students have equal opportunity to live, learn, and thrive and we have the obligation to establish general regulations and standards that shape our Harvard community in a manner that is consistent with our educational philosophy," Khurana said.

The administration’s efforts involving the final clubs in particular have been rooted in allegations that the clubs contribute to sexual misconduct on campus.

A task force established to assess sexual assault at Harvard issued a report earlier this year recommending that administrators make it against school rules to join the all-male clubs, citing statistics that purportedly showed that female students associating with members of the clubs are more likely to experience sexual assault than those who don’t. However, an independent assessment recently commissioned by one of the final clubs challenged the task force’s interpretation of the statistics, which derived from a survey released last year.

Neither Khurana nor Faust made sexual assault a focal point of their arguments in favor of the new policy unveiled Friday.