Sexual Assault Report Lambasts Final Clubs
Widely condemning the College’s all-male final clubs, the task force on sexual assault prevention calls on administrators to overhaul the groups’ practices.
Last fall, the Fox Club’s undergraduate leaders, fearing looming administrative sanctions if they remained all-male, admitted women to the club. In a letter defending their decision to the Fox’s skeptical graduate board, undergraduate officers wrote that failure to go co-ed would open the Fox to criticism in a forthcoming report outlining Harvard’s plans to address “sexual assault and gender equity on campus.”
Worse, Fox and A.D. Club leaders independently argued, College administrators could consider prohibiting undergraduate membership in the clubs.
The undergraduates’ suspicions, it seems, were well-founded. In a scathing report released Tuesday, the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention blasts historically male final clubs for “deeply misogynistic attitudes,” and calls on the College to formulate “a plan to address the problems presented by Final Clubs,” in what is one of the strongest University-sponsored condemnations of the clubs to date.
“Either don't allow simultaneous membership in Final Clubs and College enrollment; or allow Clubs to transition to all-gender inclusion with equal gender membership and leadership,” the group recommended to the entire task force.
The final report sharply condemns the clubs, emphasizing one data point in particular: 47 percent. This is the percentage of female College seniors “participating in the Final Clubs”—including women who attend male final club events and seniors who are members of female final clubs—who reported “experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college,” representing the highest figure among any student groups included in data from a University-wide sexual climate survey conducted last spring.
The corresponding survey statistic for all total female College seniors at Harvard was 31 percent, “suggest[ing] that a Harvard College woman is half again more likely to experience sexual assault if she is involved with a Club than the average female Harvard College Senior,” according to the report.
The final report, in no uncertain terms, castigates the male final clubs, which have for more than three decades effectively enjoyed independence from College oversight. The report describes final clubs as emblematic of “sexual entitlement,” troubling areas of potential alcohol abuse and sexual assault, and “vestige[s] of gender inequity” on campus.
Though the report says Harvard’s sexual assault problem is not “solely or even principally a byproduct of the activities and influence of Final Clubs,” it states that combatting sexual assault at Harvard “must include” proposals to address the clubs.
The report lists “address[ing] the distinctive problems presented by the Final Clubs and other unrecognized single-sex social organizations,” as one of six “Key Recommendations” for action.
“In our view, the very structure of the Clubs — men in positions of power engaging with women on unequal and too often on very sexual terms — speaks tellingly to the work ahead of us if we are to create an environment where all students, of all genders, can thrive,” the report states.
“The qualitative and quantitative information before us is deeply troubling and requires a strong response from Harvard,” the report adds.
This unprecedented condemnation of sexual assault statistics, membership practices, and alleged aura of exclusivity associated with Harvard’s all-male final clubs is the latest in a series of escalating calls from administrators for the centuries-old institutions to change their ways. This time, though, the report calls for more than just rhetoric. The task force asks University President Drew G. Faust to mandate a targeted plan from the College to combat issues related to final clubs.
“The clear and powerful call for the University to address issues presented by final clubs relates not only to sexual assault but also to the implications of gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity on our campus,” Faust wrote Tuesday in an email Harvard affiliates.
Since beginning his tenure in the fall of 2014, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana has focused significant attention on social life broadly and final clubs in particular.
After the then-all male Spee Club circulated a controversial party invitation last spring, Khurana wrote an email to undergraduates emphatically criticizing the invitation as “offensive, crude, and sexist.”
Last fall, Faust, in her most extensive comments on final clubs, said she worried about alcohol abuse and sexual assault on final club properties. In tandem with increasingly bold public pronouncements from administrators, including Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, administrators suggested in private meetings with undergraduate and graduate final club leaders that the clubs go co-ed.
Amid the increased scrutiny, the Spee club invited women to “punch,” or apply for membership, in early September. About a month later, Fox undergraduates added a pre-selected group of women to their ranks, and wrote in a letter to Fox graduates that administrators had “forced [their] hand.”
“If the Fox Club does not become a coed club, it will be categorized with all the other clubs when Harvard releases qualitative sexual assault information,” undergraduates officers wrote to graduates in October.
Racked by internal divisions after the undergraduates’ unilateral move, the Fox has not yet granted full membership to their female affiliates, who now hold only “provisional” status pending a special graduate vote.
At least one other club—the A.D.—firmly opposed membership changes in the wake of administrative pressure, and received legal advice on measures the group could take should Harvard mandate the group go co-ed.
While Khurana has remained tight-lipped on his involvement in the Spee and the Fox’s decisions to go co-ed, Fox Club correspondence obtained by The Crimson suggests that undergraduates believed administrators had imposed a November deadline for the club to admit women.
Khurana’s policy toward final clubs marks a sharp departure from previous policies that date back to 1984, when the clubs disaffiliated with the University after rejecting an ultimatum to go co-ed. Since then, the clubs have been left alone for the most part, though College administrators did engage with them in a limited capacity.
The task force’s report leaves no doubt that final clubs are now an administrative priority.
The Outreach and Communications subcommittee’s report says that final clubs “perpetuate gender inequity and an unhealthy social climate, including sexual harassment and assault, making this status quo unacceptable.”
Criticizing male final club practices ranging from the selection process to parties, the final report is wide-ranging in its condemnation of the all-male organizations. Off campus and out of administrative reach, the clubs “present special opportunities for underage and dangerous drinking,” according to the report.
Club-hosted parties have “reinforced a sense of sexual entitlement,” according to the report. The report cites student accounts of “parties at which the only non-members in attendance were women selected mainly by virtue of their physical appearance,” as well as party themes that portray women as “sexual objects.”
“Students pointed to competitive games between members where a man will ‘win’ a particular woman or compete for the most sexual triumphs,” the report says. The report states that some students worried about their safety when leaving parties. Freshmen women and women from other schools are particularly susceptible to the clubs’ “unsafe culture,” according to students referenced in the report.
Beyond the topic of sexual assault, the report criticizes the clubs for perpetuating what it calls social “exclusivity.”
“[F]reshmen men resent being denied entry to desirable social spaces and losing an opportunity to connect with female peers,” the report reads. “Excluded women feel the same resentment, while women who are included as guests are exposed to a culture often inimical to Harvard’s mission and over which women have little control.”
Other single-gender social clubs, though, including fraternities, sororities, and female final clubs, do not escape the report’s scrutiny.
“[We] recommend that any review of social spaces and Final Clubs include the role of fraternities, sororities, and other unrecognized single-gender social organizations at the College,” reads the report, noting that around 40 percent of female seniors participating in Greek life at Harvard reported sexual assault, compared to 31 percent of female seniors in general.
Still, the report focuses most of its rhetoric on final clubs.
“[The] problem goes beyond the number of sexual assaults that are completed or that originate in a Club’s physical spaces, as significant as that is,” the report reads. “Our outreach interviews indicate that Final Clubs have a disproportionate influence on campus culture.”
Even newly co-ed groups, such as the Spee and the Fox, however, may not be exempt from potential College oversight. While the report acknowledges that “the situation is fluid, with some clubs going co-ed and others considering it,” it recommends periodic College-conducted surveys to evaluate “the effectiveness of any changes undertaken by the Clubs or by the College as related to the Clubs.”
While the final report does not explicitly suggest prohibiting Harvard students from joining a single-sex organization, it does compel the College to produce a plan to “address the distinctive problems presented by Final Clubs.”
The report gives Khurana wide latitude to determine the scope and implementation of such plans.
“We… recognize that the University and the College are in the best position to determine the specific actions to address the problems presented by the Final Clubs,” reads the report. “[We] want to express our strong support for those actions that result in the elimination of discriminatory membership practices.”
“If those conversations fail to make progress, or if the transition by the Clubs to open and nondiscriminatory membership practices fails to address the issues we have identified in this report, we believe the University should not rule out any alternative approaches,” it adds.
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