By Blair Ericson
In the name of “gender inclusion,” Harvard has decided to punish members of all-female sororities, all-male fraternities, and single-sex final clubs of either sex. The final clubs, targeted by the administration for years, are independent groups beyond the direct reach of the university, so Harvard will blacklist their individual members by not allowing them to lead athletic teams or campus groups and making them ineligible for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
In addition to attacking these—and only these—single-sex groups as discriminatory, Harvard argues that they make sexual assault more likely, citing last spring’s contested “campus climate” survey purporting to show that single-sex clubs are the second most common places for sexual assault. The most common places are all-gender locations: Harvard dorms. Besides, as Harvard student Emily Hall pointed out at National Review, the Boston Globe has raised serious doubts about the validity of that survey. She also points out that Harvard is highly selective in picking single-sex targets—the Black Men’s Forum sand a women-only financial advice group are not just allowed to exist but funded by Harvard.
This selective punishment is not just a failure to provide a benefit. It is punishment. And it is not merely punishment of the students who join a targeted group, but it also is punishment of those innocent organizations and teams who will be denied the opportunity to choose their own leaders.
That is, Harvard’s full-throated attack on students’ right to associate off campus is also an unprecedented attack against the freedom of association of every student organization on campus. It is a major power grab by the university against the autonomy of student organizations of every kind.
Harvard is not a true marketplace of ideas so long as it declares that all student organizations ultimately belong to Harvard and must unwaveringly express Harvard’s declared morality that single-sex socializing is anathema. In 2008, when it banned a party at Adams House because it had been advertised as “Barely Legal,” Harvard argued that “a grant of access for an organization’s event necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), , which defends the freedoms of speech and association on campus, responded:
“Does anyone really believe that Harvard fully endorses all of the diverse speech accommodated in its classrooms, halls, and residences, simply by providing the space in which this wide range of expression occurs? Of course not. Such an endorsement is not only impossible, but it is also incompatible with the university’s mission as a true marketplace of ideas.”
In addition, FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh notes Harvard’s rank hypocrisy on this topic by listing several times that Harvard has gone out of its way to distance itself from the events and values promoted by student organizations in recent years. Did the nude photos of Harvard undergraduates in the H-Bomb represent Harvard? How about the “kinky sex” organization, College Munch? How about the group that planned a Satanic “Black Mass”?
Yet, this month, Harvard has made the untenable argument that by operating under the “name” of Harvard, a student group “represents” the official Harvard morality as articulated by Harvard’s administrators. No reasonable person believes that all of the diverse organizations at Harvard “represent” a monolithic Harvard morality.
Harvard’s double standards run deep. Diversity is the name of Harvard’s game, but only the approved kinds of diversity count. Single-sex organizations are OK if the purpose is to sing or play basketball or provide financial advice to women or to support black men, because these organizations are not deemed social enough in the way that Harvard proscribes. No matter that Harvard is treating all of these organizations and its sports teams with disrespect by arguing that their mission is to play sports or do something else but not, really, to be friends. If their friendships get too close, they risk violating Harvard’s culture against single-sex socializing.
Meanwhile, single-sex organizations are not OK by default if they are primarily social. That is, members of fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are automatically blacklisted so long as they do not admit members beyond a single sex. No matter that in many of their social functions, visitors of the opposite sex are quite welcome.
In fact, this is why Harvard claims to be acting in the first place. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust blames “unsupervised social spaces,” spaces Harvard cannot control, for being places where uncontrolled things happen.
And how will Harvard determine whether private off-campus organizations are social enough and that they are single-sex in their membership, and that a student is officially a member? Will there be investigations and interrogations?
When Trinity College tried this kind of thing, it failed miserably. Trinity recently backed off its own power grab because of major alumni revolt and because, after all, the fraternities were not voluntarily going coed as planned. Trinity’s president wrote:
“I have concluded that the coed mandate is unlikely to achieve its intended goal of gender equity. Furthermore, I do not believe that requiring coed membership is the best way to address gender discrimination or to promote inclusiveness. In fact, community-wide dialogue concerning this issue has been divisive and counterproductive.”
“Outrageously, Harvard has decided that 2016 is the right time to revive the blacklist,” said Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE. “This year’s undesirables are members of off-campus clubs that don’t match Harvard’s political preferences. In the 1950s, perhaps Communists would have been excluded. I had hoped that universities were past the point of asking people, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a group we don’t like?’ Sadly, they are not.”
“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 FIRE co-founder, civil liberties attorney, and Harvard Law alumnus Harvey Silverglate. “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?”
Finally, it is interesting—perhaps a legal liability—that Harvard waited to announce its policy until after the May 1 deadline for students to accept its college admission offers. Harvard’s administrators know how unpopular this new Puritanism will look to new students as well as to existing students, student organizations, alumni, and anyone who thinks Harvard should offer fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and association, the same rights enjoyed by students at public colleges and even community colleges nationwide.
Harvard has much more powerful and wise alumni than Trinity. If they want to sue, they might even find students and recognized student organizations with standing to sue on contract claims, whether or not the private associations do. Harvard may not promise fundamental freedoms and entice students to send in their deposits when it knows that these promises mean nothing.
Harvard is in the middle of a Board of Oversees election, in which alumni may vote for establishment candidates or an upstart group of petition candidates who seek a “free” and “fair” Harvard in which “privilege” of all kinds is diminished. Three Free Harvard/Fair Harvard candidates — Ron Unz, Lee Cheng, and Stuart Taylor, Jr. — have come out against Harvard’s punishment of single-sex group members. Their press release said, “Reducing unwarranted privilege is one thing, but violating fundamental promises of freedom of association is another. The impairment of students’ rights of free association is not even remotely the most appropriate or effective remedy for what President Faust has called the ‘alarming frequency’ of sexual assaults by Harvard students. Accountability should begin right at the top. The leaders of Harvard should be held fully accountable for failing to increase police presence on campus or take the other serious steps to protect students that would be called for if President Faust took seriously her own suggestion that sexual assaults are epidemic at Harvard.”
Blair Ericson is a pseudonym of a writer with Harvard connections.