Any day now, Harvard College will fire the next round of shots in its two-year attempt to snuff out a group of single-sex student social organizations which appear to have sinned against the university. “Sinned how?” one asks. These clubs – some with all-male memberships, the others accepting only female students – have refused to open their doors to students regardless of gender, instead insisting on retaining their respective all-male or all-female memberships despite administration pressure that they go co-ed. The litigation was commenced this past December 3rd, when some student social organizations filed suit in Boston’s federal court, and two all-female groups sued in Suffolk County’s Massachusetts Superior Court. Harvard’s responses to the charges are due in both cases next week.
After several years of jousting between the Harvard administration on the one side, and the single-sex clubs and these clubs’ faculty allies arguing in favor of student autonomy and freedom of association on the other side, Harvard’s administration finally made its formal move. The College on May 6, 2016 proclaimed an edict, to take effect a couple of years thereafter, that was aimed ultimately to put out of existence every off-campus sorority, fraternity and social club that continued to restrict membership to one sex – a diktat that engendered considerable outrage in many quarters of the Harvard community.
The ultimate purpose of this progressive-minded bit of social engineering was, the Harvard administration claimed, to foster “inclusion.” What the edict seems to have fostered instead – it should probably have come as no surprise to then-University President Drew Faust – was a pair of lawsuits, filed in early December of the past year. The complainants seeking to protect their civil liberties include single-sex Greek organizations and individual undergraduates. Faust got out of the Harvard presidency just in time to avoid the lawsuits, leaving the headache to her successor, new Harvard President Lawrence Bacow.
Harvard’s campaign against these student associations actually began with a somewhat different objective. The administrators first focused their attack on all-male “final clubs,” all of which own club houses located on the periphery of the college’s Cambridge campus. The men’s clubs date back to as early as 1791. In the 1990s, women undergraduates established their own clubs, less well-heeled than their older male counterparts (consequently, the women rent, rather than own, their clubhouses) but nonetheless vibrant and important to the women who have chosen to join them. Members of these single-sex clubs attend classes together, participate jointly in student organizations, and live in Harvard dorms on a non-selective, co-educational basis. Their single-gender social activities occupy only a small part of their time.
Even so, Harvard student-life administrators chafed under their lack of power over the male clubs in particular, likely for the same reason academic bureaucrats throughout higher education do often chafe: They find it somewhere between annoying and unacceptable for them to lack control over any group of students or aspect of undergraduate life. Their job has increasingly become to administer everything and everyone.
Harvard’s action is worth viewing in the context of a historical background. It is a history that saw Harvard administrators in the 1920s expel students suspected of being homosexuals, and in the 1950s purge faculty members suspected of association with the Communist Party. Harvard thus has a history of bureaucratic heavy-handedness when dealing with the personal lives of its faculty and students.
The administration offered shifting justifications for seeking to rid the college of the male social groups, the college’s early target. When the initial rationale – that the clubs fostered a culture of sexual assault – ran up against the inconvenient fact that the overwhelming number of Harvard sexual assaults took place in the co-ed dormitories run by the college itself, administrators shifted their attack to arguing the perceived unfair social and career advantages enjoyed by club members over their less well-connected classmates.
Then came the kicker. It had long been obvious that the administration was gunning only for the male final clubs – until, that is, something happened to cause Harvard to shift its concerns. At the eleventh hour, the administration decided to include in its edict the female clubs, as well as all Greek organizations. One of Harvard’s lawyers must have pointed out that, under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, the college could not punish members of all-male clubs without taking aim at the women as well. Rather than drop its war against the men, it added a war against the women.
The administration effectuated its new policy by concocting a set of punishments barring members of any single-sex social group from holding leadership positions in student organizations and (single-sex) sports teams. The final version also prohibited Harvard deans from recommending such students for coveted fellowships like the Rhodes or Marshall. The choice given to Harvard undergraduates was, essentially, the following: You may associate for part of your day in a single-sex social group of like-minded peers or be a full-fledged member of Harvard College, but not both.
In the end, ironically enough, it was the women who ended up paying the heaviest price. All the women’s clubs and sororities reluctantly folded or declared a gender-neutral status. One of those sororities then resurrected itself, but with much reduced membership. But, while a few of the men’s clubs went co-ed, most of these well-established male organizations resisted the administration’s decree and are thus far staying the course.
On December 3rd, a coalition of women’s and men’s groups and individual students fought back, filing suit in Boston’s federal court for violation of their constitutional and statutory rights. A national sorority and its resurrected local chapter filed a parallel suit in state Superior Court, claiming violations of the Massachusetts state constitution and civil rights laws that are particularly protective of associational rights from interference by private actors like Harvard.
These lawsuits are asserting the proposition, stripped of legalese, that students are human beings, not pawns in some administrative game of power and control. The human beings attending Harvard are entitled to spend part of their day off-campus associating with people whose company they freely choose. Some Harvard men and women find kinship in their single-sex groups. These personal associations, the lawsuits argue, ought to be beyond the control of administrative bureaucrats determined to follow the dictates of the administration’s strange brand of progressive enlightenment.
Harvard’s response is due in court in early February.
Harvey A. Silverglate, the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1999), is the co-founder and a Board member of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and one of the lawyers in the firm Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP representing the plaintiffs in the state Superior Court case. The author thanks research assistant Nathan McGuire.