Harvard Dean Accused of Apparent ‘Ethical Impropriety’ in Talks with Final Clubs

All-male club asks dean to remove himself from discussions after attempts to ‘coerce’ students

Rakesh Khurana
Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana / Harvard University

Harvard University’s undergraduate dean has been asked to voluntarily remove himself from talks with the school’s unrecognized all-male clubs because of conflicts of interest and apparent "ethical impropriety."

The graduate president of the Fly Club, one of the six all-male final clubs at Harvard, sent a letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon to Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana on Monday asking him to recuse himself from further discussions with the final clubs about transitioning to co-ed membership.

Khurana and other administrators have endured national media scrutiny for pushing the all-male clubs, which operate independently of the university and are located off campus, to accept female members with the alleged goal of curbing sexual assault. A Harvard-commissioned task force last month accused the final clubs of contributing to a "harmful sexual culture" and recommended that the school either bar students from joining the all-male organizations or allow the groups to transition to co-ed membership.

For months before the release of the task force’s report in March, Khurana has advocated against the clubs’ all-male membership, arguing that they are not "appropriate" for the university. Two of the clubs have agreed to accept women.

Khurana indicated in a closed-door meeting with undergraduate and graduate representatives of the clubs last week that the administration may move to punish students who join the all-male organizations, which could involve expulsion.

"The Fly Club requests the Dean of the College recuse himself from further discussion with final clubs because of conflicts of interest and perceived, if not actual, ethical impropriety," Rick Porteus, the graduate president of the Fly Club, wrote in a letter emailed to Khurana on Monday.

"[Khurana] has maintained that student membership in independent single-gender social organizations is a cause of sexual assault," Porteus wrote.

"Therefore, the dean’s attempt to coerce student leaders, through threats of expulsion or retaliation, to transition from single-gender to co-ed membership is tantamount to forcing them to agree with the dean’s unproven and contentious premise, thus denying them the opportunity to respond to specific complaints, if any, and placing a life-long cloud over their affiliation with a single-gender final club, male or female."

Porteus requested details of sexual assault allegations deemed "credible" by the school’s administration within the past five years that have involved members or guests of the Fly Club or the club’s premises. Administrators have never provided information regarding specific sexual assault allegations connected to the Fly Club, he wrote, which has led members to feel "greatly misled" by the administration.

"Nevertheless, the administration has included the Fly Club in its campaign of innuendo and threats, a campaign seemingly aimed at achieving the political agenda of the administration, rather than ensuring the safety of Harvard undergraduates," Porteus wrote.

Students feel "frightened and undermined" by the administration’s effort to pressure the final clubs to go co-ed, he wrote, particularly given Khurana’s standing as both dean of the college and a Harvard Business School professor.

"The dean has already threatened to disqualify them from applying for fellowships, captaining teams, and running for elective student office," Porteus wrote, referencing details from the meeting last week during which representatives of both the male and female clubs criticized Khurana for intimidating student members by threatening administrative action.

"Could he not also adversely affect their applications to graduate school, particularly the one where he teaches? This is not a situation that should exist within an institution purporting to offer a liberal education."

Khurana’s campaign against the final clubs has been fueled by the task force report, which highlighted a statistic showing that 47 percent of female college seniors who reported being members of or "participating" in the final clubs experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. The task force interpreted the data to mean that female students interacting socially with members of the all-male clubs were more likely to be sexually assaulted than those who do not associate with the groups.

The data supplemented an AAU survey on sexual assault at Harvard released last September, which found that 16 percent of sexual assaults committed on university property occurred in areas used by single-sex organizations. Meanwhile, 87 percent of sexual assaults that occurred on campus were committed in university dorms.

Porteus suggested in his letter that Khurana has been motivated to blame the unrecognized all-male organizations because of the $750 million in annual federal funding that the university stands to lose if it does not sufficiently address sexual assault claims raised under Title IX.

"As the national press has begun to question, the Final Report of the Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Assault draws a number of conclusions about final clubs that are not supported by the data obtained from the AAU Harvard Survey, yet the current Dean of the College has refused to allow students or alumni to question his interpretation of that data when he insists that student membership in independent single-gender social organizations is a cause of sexual assault," Porteus wrote.

He also pointed out that Khurana’s actions against the final clubs are "diverting" attention from an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard over the school’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault complaints. The suit, filed in February, involves one of the university’s undergraduate dorms, Cabot House, for which Khurana and his wife serve as dorm heads.

"The Dean of the College is in the awkward position of making unsubstantiated claims that student membership in independent single-gender social organizations causes sexual assault while at the same time being unable to discuss alleged incidents of sexual assault occurring in his own House that are the cause of current litigation," Porteus wrote.

The Fly Club leader asked Khurana to acknowledge his note, which was also sent to representatives of the other final clubs, by Friday. Khurana indicated that he will continue to participate in conversations with the clubs in a response to Porteus on Monday, according to an email provided to the Free Beacon by the university.

"I write to thank you for your email and your ongoing willingness to engage with the College in the important conversations about how this community can create a healthy and inclusive campus environment," Khurana wrote in the email. "Throughout our discussions, the College has a single objective, namely doing what is best for the student body at Harvard College."

"I look forward to carrying on in that effort as conversations with you and the other club leaders continue," he added.

The latest development follows a scathing editorial published in the Wall Street Journal that criticized Harvard administrators for attempting to "ban students from governing their own social lives." Khurana appeared to take aim at the Journal piece and other national media reports in a rare interview about the issue published in the Harvard Crimson on Sunday.

"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," Khurana said.

"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," he later added. "Many people don’t understand our changing student body and its needs and the changing nature of House life."

It remains unclear exactly how the administration will implement the recommendations of the task force, or whether any punishments to student members of the all-male clubs will also apply to those of the all-female clubs or the sororities and fraternities at Harvard.