In a continued effort to reduce discrimination among campus groups, a Harvard University faculty committee has recommended fraternities, sororities and other exclusive clubs be shut down and students not be allowed join them, even though they are already off campus and lack university recognition.
Harvard’s decision comes at a time of scrutiny for Greek systems (fraternity and sorority houses named after letters of the Greek alphabet) and demands they combat drinking and sexist treatment of women. The Harvard proposal, however, goes farther than most, calling for the elimination of Greek chapters and clubs that only admit men or women.
The report from a committee of Harvard professors and administrators calls for students to be barred from Greek organisations and final clubs, which are already not affiliated with the university, with the intent to phase them out entirely by 2022.
This follows a policy last year from Harvard President Drew G. Faust that drew significant backlash from Greek life and supporters of the storied final clubs. Faust announced that students who joined these organisations would be blocked from holding leadership positions in other campus clubs or on athletic teams. Certain academic opportunities would also be limited -- students could not receive a recommendation from the college dean for prestigious scholarships. She acted based on reports of harassment of women at club events.
Should Faust accept the guidance from the committee, which was formed to study the issue of “unrecognised single-gender organizations”, this rule would be eliminated and replaced with the new, stricter policy.
“A year has passed since the announcement of renewed action by the university to address the pernicious influence of these organizations, yet it appears many of them wish to wait it out. Some have even responded with an increased zest for exclusion and gender discrimination. This leads the committee to believe that, without strong decisive action, little positive change is likely to occur,” the report reads.
The committee does note that some of the groups moved to be coeducational, but said that even if membership of all the organisations were to become gender neutral, some of their practices are still counter to the university’s principles.
A proposed policy is modelled on those at both Williams College and Bowdoin College. Williams students cannot join a fraternity – they face punishment up to expulsion, a policy that has existed since 1962. A similar rule was enacted at Bowdoin in 1997.
Draft language for Harvard’s policy is as follows:
“Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the college. The college will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the administrative board.”
The administrative board also judges students who may have committed student conduct code violations.
Also under consideration was a policy similar to Princeton University's, which prohibits freshmen from trying to join a fraternity or sorority. The committee considered this a “half measure” that did not effect positive change in the same way.
The report contains an unsigned letter from a Harvard student who participated in one of the final clubs – the student said that the organisations encourage inequity and advocated for their abolishment.
“Admittedly, many organizations are exclusive. But not all forms of exclusion are equivalent. The benefits of selective admissions arguably outweigh the costs of exclusion. Being surrounded by a limited number of diverse and talented peers allows students to learn from each other and form close friendships. If Harvard succeeds in its mission to educate ‘citizens and citizen leaders’ to build companies, lead governments, treat patients and teach students, society benefits,” the letter reads.
One member of the committee, professor of biology David Haig, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the committee only relied on testimony from students opposed to such clubs.
“I have received numerous comments from present and former, male and female, students describing the positive contribution of the clubs to a sense of belonging at Harvard and relatively few comments supporting the sanctions,” Haig wrote.
The unaffiliated Harvard chapter of fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon published a statement to Facebook, saying it was disappointed the committee “dismissed” concerns of Harvard students.
"Our chapter, like many other Greek organizations, is proud to foster an environment where people of different backgrounds, opinions and identities may come together in authentic ways. Our open rush process and need-blind financial aid programs are cornerstones of who we are, and we take great pride in recruiting and accepting members of all races, creeds, religions, sexual orientations, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. We offer a positive, genuine alternative to on-campus groups and are an important part of the Harvard community, especially for those who could not find similarly supportive environments on campus," the statement reads.
The North-American Interfraternity Conference also issued a statement: "Freedom of association and speech are paramount for the intellectual and spiritual growth of students. We urge Harvard to focus on creating a culture of health and safety on campus that also respects students’ rights."
The free speech group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sharply criticised both the first announcement and the new recommendation. FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in an interview Wednesday that the recommendation opens the door for students to be treated like “academic criminals”, simply for trying to congregate with like-minded people.
“It’s about freedom of association – there will always be organisations that somebody objects to, social or political, religious organisations, but when you set the precedent of total control of the social lives of students, you’ve opened the door,” he said. “And apparently they’ve got to be punished.”
Shibley would not comment if FIRE would pursue legal action but said it would work with Harvard students and faculty, many of whom dislike the actions the university has taken, he said.
A spokeswoman for the all-male Porcellian Club also blasted Faust’s initial rule in The Washington Post.
“We are disappointed with this unfair and punitive decision that attacks Harvard’s own students because they make a choice to freely assemble at unaffiliated, off-campus, private organisations,” the spokeswoman told the Post.
The recommendation will eventually be presented to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, and then Faust.