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UPDATED: April 25, 2018 at 3:11 p.m.
Ten College students have travelled to the nation’s capital and will lobby members of Congress Wednesday in an effort to imperil Harvard’s ability to enforce its social group penalties, Graduate President of the Fly Club Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78 said in an interview Tuesday.
These students are members of final clubs and Greek organizations on campus, Porteus told The Crimson. In the interview—which also included Dani Weatherford, executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference and Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference—Porteus declined to identify the students and the specific social groups they represent.
He said the students requested anonymity out of fear of possible repercussions from the College.
The students are particularly lobbying around the PROSPER Act, a proposed update to the Higher Education Act that—if passed—could force Harvard to choose between millions of dollars in federal research funding and its social group penalties.
The College’s social group policy—which took effect with the Class of 2021—bars all members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from student group leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.
The PROSPER Act in its current form likely does not affect Harvard; over the past few months, some campus social groups have begun lobbying Congress to change the wording of an amendment in the act to render the legislation applicable to Harvard.
“We are continuing to work on that language with members of Congress,” Weatherford said in the interview. “There are still opportunities to amend that language as it makes it to the House floor.”
“There are also those opportunities on the Senate side, as they are still drafting that bill,” she added.
The Harvard undergraduates’ visit to the capital forms part of a larger push by national fraternities and sororities to lobby Congress to enact protections for Greek life more broadly. The ten College students will be joined by more than 200 undergraduates representing Greek chapters at other campuses across the country, according to Weatherford.
The students’ involvement also comes as campus social groups are stepping up efforts to oppose the sanctions on Capitol Hill. Some social organizations have banded together to form the Cambridge Coalition, a group that has retained tony D.C. firm Arnold & Porter to oversee its lobbying efforts. A member of the Porcellian Club also recently joined the board of directors for the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, the premier political arm for Greek organizations in the United States.
The group of undergraduates will split into small teams and will attend a combined roughly 450 meetings on the Hill with members of Congress and other staffers Wednesday, Horras said.
Students will reference Harvard’s social group policy at each meeting, according to Porteus.
“Harvard was consistently emphasized in the sense that it galvanized everyone’s attention,” Porteus said. “Harvard will be cited frequently as an example of the direction things could change if not questioned and held in check.”
The students will meet with members of Congress “who have the ability to influence the Higher Education Act reauthorization,” Weatherford said. This includes members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, she added.
Weatherford also said the lobbying schedule will include meetings with Congresspeople representing members and alumni of Greek organizations and districts that contain colleges or universities with Greek groups.
“We also want to speak to those individuals who represent districts where our organizations either have headquarters or in districts where organizations have chapters,” she said. “So that’s just about every district in the country.”
The Harvard students will divide into three student lobbying teams, each of which is scheduled to hold around 15 meetings, Porteus said.
Porteus added the teams of Harvard students are “balanced” between male and female members.
Weatherford said this week’s efforts do not mark the first time single-gender organizations have lobbied around the Higher Education Act reauthorization. She added past efforts have been met with “very warm receptions.”
Weatherford said North Carolina Representative Virginia R. Foxx, a Republican who proposed the PROSPER Act, is a “great champion of this effort.” Another Republican, Tennessee Senator A. Lamar Alexander, has also been “very open” to having conversations with representatives from Greek organizations, Weatherford said.
Horras added Democratic Ohio Representative Marsha L. Fudge has also been receptive to the Greek organizations’ lobbying efforts.
Horras said during the interview that NIC representatives emailed Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana 18 months ago about working with the College on the social group policy, but never received a response.
Weatherford said national leaders of sororities previously met with Harvard administrators, including Khurana, to discuss the social group policy.
“As members of this community, we all have an opportunity to create a campus culture that is rooted in respect and inclusion,” Khurana wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday. “The College’s policy on USGSO’s is designed to help students build a community in which every student can thrive, and it does so on the foundation of a set of shared values including belonging, inclusion, and non-discrimination.”
Both Weatherford and Porteus said they are optimistic their lobbying efforts will have tangible effects. Porteus in part pointed to a 2018 public opinion survey that suggests American adults believe college students have the right to join single-gender social groups.
Arnold & Porter employed polling firm Morning Consult to conduct the survey in February, according to an email from Kevin O’Neill, a lobbyist for Arnold & Porter.
The final results indicated 77 percent of adults believe “students should have the right to gather in the student organizations of their choice, on campus or off campus” and 60 percent believe “Congress should pass legislation that allows students to join any campus organization at the time of their choosing, assuming they are academically eligible to do so,” according to O’Neill.
“We have great belief that this language will be included in the final version of the HEA reauthorization,” Weatherford said of the efforts to change the wording of the PROSPER Act.
“Earlier attempts at lobbying opened the door to serious discussion about this in Congress,” Porteus said. “Tomorrow’s event should really push the door wide open.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: April 25, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Judson Horras's affiliation; he represents the North-American Interfraternity Conference, not the National Interfraternity Conference.
CORRECTION: April 25, 2018
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Horras said National Panhellenic Conference representatives contacted Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana about the sanctions. In fact, he said North-American Interfraternity Conference representatives contacted Khurana.
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.
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