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UPDATED: May 11, 2016, at 11:36 a.m.
Single-gender social organizations largely decried a new policy that will bar their members from holding leadership positions and receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships.
The policy, proposed by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and announced Friday morning by University President Drew G. Faust in an email to undergraduates, will not affect any current undergraduates or even incoming freshmen; the Class of 2021 will be the first to which it will apply. But graduate and undergraduate members of male and female final clubs, sororities, and fraternities expressed disappointment and outrage at the change. Talk of a spontaneous 5 p.m. protest at Massachusetts Hall, where the offices of Faust and other University administrators are located, even surfaced briefly, though the plan was largely abandoned and only a dozen or so undergraduates stood outside the building when Faust left for the day.
Many affiliates of both male and female groups said the policy could disproportionately affect female final clubs and sororities.
“I think it’s going to make it very difficult for female clubs to continue to exist,” said graduate president of the Sablière Ariel Stoddard ’10, who co-wrote an op-ed Wednesday critical of the administration’s dealings with female clubs.
Graduate president of the all-male Fly Club Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 agreed, saying “the greatest damage will apply to the five women’s final clubs. This will be a tremendous blow to their current undergraduate membership’s ability to recruit and the efforts of their graduate boards to create healthy support networks for Harvard women.”
Undergraduate members of Harvard sororities were also aggrieved by the announcement. Though many declined to comment on the record, a wave of impassioned Facebook posts from sorority members, and, to a lesser extent, from members of female clubs, hit the newsfeeds of undergraduates shortly after Harvard announced its decision. In 2015, the Cambridge Panhellenic Council’s president estimated that 400 women participated in Harvard’s sororities.
Eugenia B. Schraa ’04, the legal chair of the Sablière’s graduate board, questioned Khurana’s stated rationale, which included an extended description of the history of women at Harvard and framed the policy as an important step in Harvard’s institutional evolution.
“[Khurana] positions himself and Harvard as this force for liberal causes and yet there’s no acknowledgments of the views that women here are expressing,” Schraa said. “But it’s also a very odd way of trying to position himself with these heroes from the past and [shows a] blindness to any dissimilarities that might exist between founding Radcliffe in 1894, including women within Harvard in the 1970’s, and the situation here. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge even that there might be differences.”
Stoddard reiterated concerns she expressed in the Sablière op-ed, saying she thought the messages Friday from both Khurana and Faust seemed to take into account none of the women’s clubs concerns about safe transitions to gender neutral policies. Undergraduate women, Stoddard and her colleagues wrote, could become “collateral damage” in hasty transitions that fail to properly consider a woman’s safety.
Like Schraa, Porteus also questioned the framing of the policy, emphasizing that Harvard administrators had previously focused on sexual assault as the central issue of the final clubs.
Porteus said Faust and Khurana’s letters Friday seemed to move away from references to a report from University-wide task force chaired by former Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman that upbraided final clubs and implied that they were a large contributor to sexual assault on campus. Indeed, Harvard repeatedly presented one statistic to bolster their case against the clubs. The task force report suggested that a woman was “half again more likely to experience sexual assault if she is involved with a Club than the average female Harvard College senior.”
“The Hyman report has simply been the weapon of choice until outside critiques blunted its edge,” said Porteus. “This has not been about sexual assault and shame on the University administration for having misled the hundreds of members, current members of final clubs, that this issue had anything to do with preventing sexual assault, a concern that everyone shared and earnestly wished to address.”
In an interview Wednesday, Faust defended the sexual assault prevention report; her letter Friday also briefly mentioned the work of the taskforce. Khurana is expected to present additional recommendations regarding the prevention of sexual assault to Faust by the end of the academics year.
Other representatives of male clubs also had harsh words for the newly-announced policy.
In a statement made on behalf of the Porcellian Club, Marcia Horowitz, a Vice President at the public relations firm Rubenstein, wrote that the club was “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 organizations."
This semester, the Porcellian Club was publicly critical of Khurana’s approach to the clubs and commissioned a statistical analysis which charged the University-wide taskforce report of twisting data from a last year's sexual assault climate survey to vilify final clubs.
Porteus said the Fly would not “rule out anything that was within the law and morally and ethically defensible.” Adding their voices to the yearlong debate for the first time, two national parent organizations of Harvard’s fraternities also weighed in on Harvard’s new policy.
Jonathan M. Pierce, media spokesperson for the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, explicitly questioned the legality of Harvard’s policy.
“We will be forwarding this to our legal counsel and be reaching out to our partners at other Greek organizations and other clubs,” Pierce said. “We believe [the regulations are] unfair, likely to be unconstitutional, and we will work to fight it any way we can and we will reach out to others impacted.”
“Fraternities and sororities have been protected as single-gender organizations by law,” Pierce added. “To my knowledge, Harvard is still in the United States so that would apply to them as well.”
Spokesperson for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity Brandon Weghorst said he thinks “all fraternities and sororities will see this policy as something that sort of unnecessarily punishes students” interested in a Greek experience, though he emphasized that he could only speak for Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
Despite condemning the proposal, many groups said they would not tell their members to conceal their affiliation from the College, which plans to appoint a committee of students, faculty, and administrators to enforce the policy.
“We’re not going to encourage future students who wish to join our organization to misrepresent themselves in signed statements,” Porteus said. “We’re not going to do anything to place our future undergrads, potential undergrad members, in that morally compromising position.”
Stoddard said the Sablière would similarly maintain honesty with the administration.
“We are made up of a membership of very lovely, honest people,” Stoddard said. “There is no thought that we are going to take the position of ‘oh they can’t enforce it.’”
Weghorst expressed similar sentiments, saying “at this time Sigma Alpha Epsilon is not going to question or fight the sanction idea or basically what the policy will be with Harvard.”
While many leaders were critical, at least one alumna of an unrecognized single-gender group, Schuyler H. Daum ’12 of the all-female IC Club, approved of the change.
“I think that there’s probably a lot to work out but generally I think it’s the sort of bold action that the school needed to make to make an affirmative statement about what the values of Harvard College are,” Daum, who is not on the club’s graduate board, said. “There’s a lot to iron out but I think it’s a really exciting new stage in Harvard history.”
Many undergraduate presidents of final clubs and Greek organizations did not respond to or declined request for comment.
—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.
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