As Social Life Changes, Harvard Alumni Are Outspoken
Last week, when Harvard unveiled historic new sanctions for members of final clubs and Greek organizations, it set out to change how Harvard College undergraduates would socialize in the years to come.
Starting with the Class of 2021, students who are members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations—like final clubs, fraternities, and sororities—will be barred from leading student groups, serving as captains of athletic teams, and receiving College endorsements for many post-graduate fellowships.
With the new rules, the organizations that have collectively counted generations of Harvard students are under the most intense administrative pressure they have experienced since the 1980s, when male final clubs officially disaffiliated with the University. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, a main driver of the push against the clubs—known for heavy alumni involvement—said he thinks they have remained stuck in the past ever since.
“Even in recent decades, as our community has undergone a dramatic and positive transformation, unrecognized single-gender social organizations have lagged behind in ways that are untenable in the 21st century,” Khurana wrote in a letter last Friday explaining the new changes.
But even as Khurana laid out a vision for an evolving undergraduate social experience, Harvard students from different eras were more mixed on what, if any, changes the College should make to the school’s social life.
Though many elected graduate leaders of clubs have publicly and strongly challenged Harvard’s approach to the clubs for months, last week’s announcement has precipitated broader alumni engagement with the the future of these organizations on campus. While the new sanctions apply to single-gender social organizations broadly, the most vocal critics among alumni over the past weeks have been worried about the future of historically all-male final clubs.
Quickly, a flurry of letters appeared in news publications, including The Crimson and the Wall Street Journal, as some alumni denounced the new policies. Some of those opposed even suggested they would stop donating to their alma mater out of principle. Others, however, lauded the University’s decision to make a change that they felt was long overdue.
“I’ve got mixed feelings and I think probably most people do,” Paul J. Zofnass ’69, who was not a member of a final club, said. “I think part of it is what age group you’re a part of.”
‘WE’RE OLD DINOSAURS’
For alumni who fondly remember their undergraduate evenings in clubhouse parlors and may still occasionally sport their club tie, the proposed sanctions—perhaps unsurprisingly—are less than welcome.
When Gerard J. Cassedy ’61 thinks back on his undergraduate days as a member of the Delphic Club, he remembers the gin and tonic-fueled garden parties, the late-night card games, and the women who, at the end of the night, he and the other club members would “put on the T and send back to Wellesley.”
With Harvard’s new policy, though, Cassedy fears that the final clubs—long a controversial cornerstone of social life at Harvard—may soon be defunct. But for Cassedy and other critics of Harvard’s proposed sanctions, Harvard’s exact problem with the clubs and single-gender organizations remains unclear.
Scrutiny around the organizations intensified this year with the release of a task force report linking final clubs to elevated rates of sexual assault. Faust and Khurana’s messages detailing the new policy, however, centered on the exclusion and discrimination inherent in the membership selection processes of unrecognized single-gender groups.
“So is the reason that they’re so upset that there’s actually sexual activity that they’re not happy with, or is it because they just don’t like the clubs and they think the people in them are elitist? I don’t know,” Cassedy said. “We’ve existed for over 100 years, and I can’t see that any harm has come of that.”
James M. Myers ’77, a graduate member of the Porcellian Club, took much the same stance.
“I can see how people think that these elitist clubs are outdated, and they are dinosaurs from the 19th century,” Myers said. “But there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with these old traditions that are absolutely harmless.”
Irin Carmon ’05 disagreed, contending that the clubs are both anachronistic and actively harmful to campus culture.
“When I was an undergraduate, the clubs seemed like an immutable fact, and the administration appeared to throw up its hands,” she wrote in an email. “I’m so glad that turned out not to be true, since they were a noxious source of class and gender inequality.”
Khurana echoed Carmon in his public proposal to regulate the groups, a four-page document casting the clubs as “discriminatory” and “rife with power imbalances.”
“Even at 20, [the clubs] struck me as hearkening back to a time when women couldn’t own property,” Carmon wrote. “The way the clubs compounded class inequality was at least as bad as how they codified unequal gender power dynamics, where men literally held the keys to social life.”
While several alumni said they would not be opposed to making their clubs co-ed, many chafed at the idea of Harvard attempting to force the clubs to change their membership policies.
“I think if the clubs want to voluntarily integrate, fine and dandy. We asked [the undergraduate members] over the years what they wanted to do because we’re old dinosaurs, you know, we’re the ancients,” Cassedy said.
Zofnass questioned why women’s organizations, like sororities and female final clubs, should have been sanctioned at all. One of his daughters, Rebecca A. Zofnass ’09, was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta; she said she supported the new sanctions, and called the “death sentence for sororities” a “necessary evil.”
“I wish that there was another solution to the fact that the social scene at Harvard has always revolved around final clubs and that is a male-dominated scene,” Rebecca Zofnass said. “But I understand that after 30 years of trying to make the clubs go co-ed, this is the only option left.”
In the long term, Paul Zofnass said he thought the policy change was the right decision.
“We do need to be more open minded, so Harvard taking a lead on it is very important in terms of sending the right message, but in doing so not everything will be perfect,” Zofnass said.
FREE HARVARD, FREE ASSOCIATION
As the debate about the future of undergraduate social life rages on newspaper editorial pages and blogs across the Internet, it is also shaping an unusually contentious race for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the University’s second highest governing body.
Many critics of the changes have decried the sanctions as an attack on the freedom of association and the First Amendment. In a statement Monday, Stuart S. Taylor, Jr., Lee C. Cheng ’93, and Ron K. Unz ’83—all candidates on the outsider “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket—joined that chorus of critics. They wrote that they were “appalled and dismayed” by the policy,
“The Harvard administration has way, way overreached, and is teaching a lesson not about honoring and respecting difference of perspective and preferences, but on how power can be abused to enforce monolithic ways of thinking and living,” the statement reads. Unz and Cheng said they were not members of final clubs or fraternities as undergraduates; Taylor was a member of an eating club, which is a social organization at Princeton.
The statement is a departure from the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket’s typical adherence to its dual-pronged message. While the five candidates have largely stuck to their two shared tenets—to make undergraduate tuition free and probe Harvard’s admissions processes for racial bias—several, including Taylor and Unz, have recently criticized what Taylor called a “disrespect for civil liberties” on campus.
Broadening the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” message, Taylor said, may curry favor with voters angry about the new policy.
“I think there are a lot of alumni who feel the way we do about this and a lot of other things, and since this is a hot controversy, bringing it to their attention might help our candidacies,” Taylor said.
The arguments that Taylor, Cheng, Unz make are familiar to some those of club graduates. Myers called Harvard’s sanctions a threat to first amendment values. Dale A. Jenkins ’60, who is a Fly Club graduate member, also argued that joining a club fell under the First Amendment’s right to assembly.
“You have this other question which is right to assembly. There’s a legal criteria that might be applied,” Jenkins said. “We’re talking about human nature and sociology. People of like interests, associations, backgrounds, whatever group, they’re naturally going to gravitate together, and there’s no way of legislating that away.”
But other alumni, like Jackson M. Kernion ’12, said it should fall well within the University’s power to combat prejudicial associations. Kernion said he was not a member of a final club.
“The matter is just whether or not it makes sense for a university to ban gender discrimination, and if you think about it, that is important for a place like Harvard to do,” Kernion said.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Beyond where alumni place their vote for the Board of Overseers, the sanctions against unrecognized single-sex social groups has also influenced where some alumni put their money.
Stephen G. Lookner ’93, a graduate student who was not a member of a club, said he takes strong issue with Khurana and Faust’s defense of the policy.
“Each of these things makes me feel worse about the school: the policy itself, the incredibly poor argument, the arrogance of thinking it’s okay for them to dictate to student organizations who they can have, the whole thing is just terrible to me,” Lookner said.
Incensed, Lookner wrote a letter to both Faust and Khurana declaring that he would withhold future donations to the University until the policy is changed.
College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that Harvard did not desire to “regulate the internal affairs of the unrecognized social organizations.”
“[T]hey retain the authority to set their membership criteria, even as the College will continue to urge them to adopt inclusive and non-discriminatory policies,” Dane wrote. “Likewise, students will be able to continue to join these organizations and remain in good academic standing with the College.”
Now halfway through its record-breaking capital campaign, the University is relying on alumni donations to fund remaining priorities including House renewal, the Allston science complex, and financial aid.
Still, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Tamara E. Rogers ’74 said Khurana and Faust did not weigh the potential impact on fundraising when formulating the recommendations.
“When institutional leadership is thinking of a recommendation like this… fundraising is not the driving force behind it. They didn't take an action either because they thought it would help or harm fundraising and I think that’s the right thing to do,” Rogers said. “Will there be some people who will stop giving? I am sure that there will be some.”
Jenkins had similar expectations. “I think some people might decide that their contributions to the Harvard College Fund might be better diverted to their clubs,” he said.
But Kernion, a recent graduate, said the policy announcement made him more inclined to give to his alma mater.
“I’m a poor grad student so I don’t have money, but if I had money, I would be giving a ton of money to Harvard right now,” Kernion said. “It’s the first time I’ve been proud of Harvard as an alumni.”
Myers, though, said he would be taking a different tack.
“I have told all of my friends in the Porcellian Club that I would prefer to just give Harvard the finger,” he said. “It’s easy; it’s fun; it doesn’t cost anything.”
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
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