Harvard’s secretive social clubs: Time for them to finally wind up?

A committee is considering a recommendation that could fundamentally change the social fabric of Harvard.

The committee, of faculty and staff members and students, suggested calling for numerous exclusive social clubs — including the secretive “final clubs,” fraternities and sororities — to be “phased out” over the next five years. If enacted, the recommendation would end a centuries-old tradition of rarefied clubs at a university that have been criticised as deeply exclusionary.

A preliminary recommendation circulated to students and faculty members on Wednesday would bar students from joining “final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organisations.” Since Harvard has not recognised the groups for decades, the committee’s suggestion would, if enacted, try to eliminate the clubs by punishing the students who participate in them.

Final clubs, which for much of their history were all-male social organisations that offered an exclusive clubhouse and a tightly knit alumni network, have come under extensive scrutiny in recent years, and this has pushed some to begin admitting women. Some all-female clubs have formed over the years.

If the Ivy League varsity’s famous clubs wind down it would end a centuries-old tradition of rarefied clubs at a university that have been criticised as deeply exclusionary.

An outsize role in campus life

Along with the Greek organisations, the final clubs, so named because they were once the last organisations students were likely to join before they graduated, have played an outsize role in the social life of the campus through parties and other events. A report on sexual assault released by Harvard last year said they came with a sense of “sexual entitlement” and were a “vestige of sexual inequity.”

“The final clubs in particular were products of their time,” the committee’s new report said. “Due to their resistance to change over the decades, they have lapsed into products behind their time.”

A controversial policy announced in the spring last year said students who participated in the single-gender clubs would not be allowed to hold on-campus leadership positions, such as captainships of sports teams, nor could they receive the dean’s endorsements for prestigious fellowships.

“A year has passed since the announcement of renewed action by the university to address the pernicious influence of the organisations, yet it appears many of them wish to wait it out. Some have even responded with an increased zest for exclusion and gender discrimination,” the report said, although it did not elaborate.

The latest proposal, part of a report written by more than two dozen faculty and staff members and students, would go further than last year’s announcement.

Famous members

It would affect all final clubs, including those open to both men and women, as well as another exclusive group called the Hasty Pudding Club, the social organisation that boasted John Adams, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy as members. And the recommendation would direct students who violate the policy to the school’s Administrative Board for discipline.

“Time after time,” the report said, “the social organisations have demonstrated behaviour inconsistent with an inclusive campus culture, a disregard for the personhood and safety of fellow students, and an unwillingness to change — even as new students join them over generations.”

The chairman and chairwoman of the committee — Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, and Suzannah Clark, a professor of music — said in a letter to faculty members that the committee’s goal was to “diminish the role” of the private social clubs on campus, but cautioned that the recommendations were only a draft. The committee is seeking feedback before it makes a final recommendation to president Drew Gilpin Faust, who has the authority to accept it and make it policy.

Hailstorm of criticism

Still, the 2016 policy brought a hailstorm of criticism from some faculty members and the social clubs themselves, and the new recommendation is sure to do the same.

“This report is fundamentally dishonest in its arguments, void of credible evidence in support of its views and sophomoric in its rhetoric,” said Rick Porteus, the graduate president of the Fly Club, adding that he did not think the recommendation posed a threat to the club. “Bad policies typically fall of their own weight,” he said.

And it left some students in a state of consternation.

“Dean Khurana has clearly abdicated any position of principle with respect to freedom of association,” said Aaron Slipper, a senior who is part of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which is affiliated with the Hasty Pudding Club and puts on an annual drag show.

“He’s moved the principle under which he can subject membership in organisations to administrative censure from gender exclusivity to exclusivity at all,” Slipper added. “It’s particularly rich coming from one of the most exclusive universities that exists.”

In a dissent to the recommendation, David A. Haig, a member of the committee who is a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, pointed to survey data that found 1,820 students wanted to repeal the 2016 policy, and 932 wanted to keep it.

“The report,” Haig wrote, “proposes an escalation of the conflict between unrecognised social organisations and Harvard College.”

 

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