Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

At What Price ‘Progress’?

Some people are ecstatic at the news. Some people are furious. It'll hit the national news cycle in about twelve hours.

Basically, it's another Friday at Harvard.

Every lunchtime conversation is about the same topic, in hushed tones. Friends measure their words, not quite sure whether what they're about to say will cause offense to their closest friends. One can't sit in the dining hall without overhearing tense, but hushed, conversations about it. "How about that President Faust?" is acceptable as a casual greeting between friends.

It's not just another Friday at all.


Today President Faust announced by email that she's accepting Dean Khurana's recommendations that:

  1. For students matriculating in the fall of 2017 and thereafter: any such students who become members of unrecognized single-gender social organization will not be eligible to hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations or athletic teams. Currently enrolled students and those who are matriculating in the fall of 2016 will be exempt from these new policies.

  2. ...any such students who become members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will not be eligible to receive the Dean's endorsement letters for those fellowships that require such endorsements.


These new policies will not prevent undergraduates from choosing their own paths while at Harvard. They are not designed to regulate the internal affairs of the unrecognized social organizations; the organizations retain the authority to set their membership criteria, even as the College will continue to urge them to adopt inclusive and non-discriminatory policies. Likewise, students will be able to continue to join these organizations and remain in good academic standing with the College. The recommendations are instead focused exclusively on decisions belonging to the College about what it funds, sponsors, endorses[,] or otherwise operates under its name.

( Khurana | Faust)

The Crimson reports:

Starting with Harvard’s Class of 2021, undergraduate members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will be banned from holding athletic team captaincies and leadership positions in all recognized student groups. They will also be ineligible for College endorsement for top fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.


For those of you who are not caught up on the vocabulary of Harvard administrative euphemism, the measures are directed at six of the eight historically-all-male final clubs, as explained in another article by the Crimson:

Final clubs are historically single-gender social clubs. Although similar to fraternities and sororities, clubs are differentiated by their unique selection process. Students may not join until their sophomore year and even then must be “punched,” or invited to apply, for membership. Over successive rounds of punch events, the number of “punches” is winnowed down until a select few are initiated into the club. Also unlike fraternities and sororities, clubs are independently owned and, since 1984, are unaffiliated with the University—a decision they made after administrators tried to force them to go co-ed. Most clubs are Massachusetts corporations ultimately run by club graduates, who control the club’s assets and finances.

Harvard has six all-male clubs, five all-female clubs, and two co-ed clubs—though within one of those, the Fox Club, women enjoy only “provisional” membership after internal divisions over whether to admit women racked the club’s graduate leadership. The eight historically male clubs own valuable Cambridge properties and have included in their membership several United States Presidents, well-known authors, and politicians. The female clubs are much younger, with the first one forming in 1991, and have yet to secure full control of off-campus properties. (...)

note: It's 'final club', not 'finals club', because the clubs were originally the termination of a social ladder of 'waiting clubs'; they have nothing to do with final examinations.


If the move seems like a blunt reaction, heedless of its potential to cause collateral damage to a number of unintended third parties, then there's a reason: it's intended as a response to concerns about sexual assault.

The University and College administrations have made no secret that they intend to crack down on all-male final clubs one way or another. The final report of the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention "lambasted" the all-male Final Clubs, and President Faust, Dean Khurana, and the Harvard Corporation have all spoke out against them, acknowledging to various degrees their concerns about the heightened risk of sexaual assault in social spaces controlled by unrecognized all-male organizations.

In the meantime, administrators have largely remained silent on the issue of the other unrecognized single-sex organizations: all-female Final Clubs, sororities, and fraternities. (They, too, are subject to the new policies -- but more on that later.)


Some excellent words have been written by other people on this issue, before today's announcement. Three alumnae of the Sablière Society wrote an excellent op-ed in the Crimson last week, arguing that "Harvard Can’t Achieve Safety and Equity for Women If It Ignores Their Voices":

As graduate leaders of a women’s club, we support the idea of moving towards gender inclusivity. We are also committed to ensuring a safe and equitable social experience, not just for our members, but for women at Harvard.

But we are deeply worried about the way Harvard is going about this change.

In the past few months, the female clubs have tried to work with Harvard’s administration to ensure that both men’s and women’s clubs transition safely and that women do not become collateral damage in the transition. Harvard has given us no indication it understands these concerns.

If the male clubs unilaterally go co-ed—as the Spee and the Fox already have—new female members will be at a significant disadvantage vis-à-vis new male members. The leadership structures and alumni bases of these clubs are still all-male, and will remain predominantly so for the next few years, if not decades.

These new women members, selected by a pre-existing all-male membership, will lack the benefit of women in leadership positions, who could help develop a truly gender-inclusive culture. They will also lack a female alumnae base. We have concerns about whether such conditions will be safe and beneficial for women.


Harvard has given little indication that it has considered whether the new reality it demands will in practice benefit women on campus. According to conversations we have had with members of the Spee and Fox, the administration has not even reached out to understand how each of these formerly male clubs has integrated, or how they plan to support their new female members.

Why has Harvard ignored these concerns? Because it is enacting this policy primarily as a form of damage control.

Harvard is facing a barrage of media attacks concerning its abysmal sexual assault statistics, as well as an ongoing federal investigation and at least one lawsuit alleging Title IX violations.

In all, circumstances are ripe for quick-fix solutions that could actually run counter to the substance of what Harvard seeks to accomplish: reducing sexual assault and creating true equity for women. (...)

The Crimson editorial board opined last months against "Sanctions for Show", in measured language:

We have long condemned final clubs for cultivating such a toxic campus social environment. But sanctions elicit immediate questions of practicality. How the College would go about identifying students in final clubs is anyone’s guess. So is the question of whether the sanctions would be extended to other fraternity-like organizations. If so, still unclear would be the definition of a fraternity-like organization, especially as other groups would begin to fill the social void on campus in the wake of sanctions.

But beyond issues of feasibility, sanctions would mark a severe invasion of students’ privacy. Granted, there is no legal right to attend Harvard, so few would question the legality of sanctions on final club members. But by the same token, few would question basic liberties on campus, such as privacy within one’s own dorm room. The University doesn’t police which extracurricular organizations students join, nor the political causes they take on because students have the right to organization outside of the College. (...)


disclosure: I have never been affiliated with an unrecognized single-sex social organization, though some of my closest friends are members of such organizations. As the president of a recognized club sports / performing arts organization, I have worked closely with other student leaders who were simultaneously members of unrecognized single-sex social organizations.

But back to today. There are three attitudes going around, that I've seen: glee, confusion, and shock. Some people are happy to see the College taking a stand against entrenched patriarchy and elitism. Many people are surprised that College administrators took such a drastic step, which all commentators had written off as 'speculative', even after Khurana had suggested it in a private meeting.

And more than a few people are shocked and really, truly angry. Imagine for a second that your college dean declared that you were unfit to represent your school as a scholar, or as a leader of an organization that you've been a part of almost as long as you've been at Harvard. Meanwhile, some of your friends are celebrating the news by associating you with some of the worst elements of the Harvard community. Happy Monday.

aside: I am aghast at the College's choice to make this announcement in the middle of final exams. I've criticized the administration before for springing important news on students at the worst possible time for constructive conversation, but this one sets a new record for sheer thoughtlessness.

The idea that there might be students who would be deeply, personally hurt by an official declaration that they were unfit, by virtue of their extracurricular associations, to be student leaders or Rhodes scholars just hours before they were scheduled to take their final exams seems to have escaped the august leadership of Harvard College.

As I processed the news, I thought of another friend who served with me on the Executive Board of the Ballroom Dance Team, who is also a member of an unrecognized sorority. She almost single-handedly reformed the subcommittee of team leadership that organized our fall and spring intercollegiate competitions, which draw more than 800 people from colleges across New England.

What had been an opaque, secretive committee rife with disorganization, she transformed into an efficient, smoothly-run operation, effecting a net turnaround of nearly $10k between additional revenues and cost-cutting in an event that had been chronically hemorrhaging money. Today's announcement by the Dean claims that she ought not be allowed to 'represent Harvard' as an officer of the Ballroom Dance Team.

Another of my close friends, one of the most compassionate people I know, co-ran the Sexual Health and Relationship Counseling student organization while a member of an unrecognized all-female social organization. Dean Khurana, I assume, believes she should not have 'represented Harvard' by doing so.

(Yes, there's a grandfather clause which exempts all current students and students matriculating in the fall of 2016. But nevertheless, the College has made its opinions on the matter clear, even if its enforcement will be delayed.)


The worst part about this is that the College administration has framed the matter in a way to make nuanced debate practically impossible.

Most students dislike the final clubs (the all-male, the all-female, and the recently-co-ed). All of us wish to fight sexual assault on our campus. And so it's difficult to speak out against a measure that the College takes with the goal of weakening the male clubs' power and decreasing the incidence of sexual assault. Criticizing Dean Khurana's strong response can all-too-easily be perceived as a defense of the (definitely problematic) clubs, or an attempt to trivialize the problem of sexual assault.

But we should speak out against it, and we should show that such counterspeech can be made from principled grounds. Good intentions do not good policy make, and we should be concerned when well-meaning policies have unintended consequences. To do otherwise is to demonstrate a fatal lack of concern for how our efforts to effect change operate in the real world, quite apart from the ideological sphere. So let's look at some of the collateral damage this policy will inflict.

First, sororities and fraternities will be hit especially hard, as their national affiliations explicitly prevent them from having co-ed membership. (I put 'sororities' before 'fraternities' because they're larger in absolute numbers: reports put the fraction of Harvard women in sororities around 19%, and my guess is that the number of men in fraternities is less than half that.) I seriously doubt that they'll be able to survive the College's sanctions, and quietly evaporate after next year.

Single-sex social environments aren't my thing, but I've heard today from numerous female classmates that their sororities are a crucial piece of their social support structures here at Harvard. Today, I heard stories about women who felt that their sororities were a place where they could get support for mental health issues when they felt they couldn't reach out to College resources.

Another friend spoke of how empowering it was to discuss the complexities of navigating Harvard's social scene in a group of women she felt at home with. Yet another described how she had seen her sorority function as a comforting and safe support structure for members who had experienced sexual assault and felt that they couldn't go to the central administration about it.

I don't understand these organizations, because I haven't known the needs that they fulfill, but I listen to the stories of people who tell me that they are valuable to them. And it is from that perspective that I am saddened when Harvard demonstrates its inability to do likewise.

(Apparently, Dean Khurana has not met with the Panhellenic Council, the joint organization of sorority leadership at Harvard, in more than a year. They were blindsided with the news this morning, same as the rest of us.)


I'm less familiar with the fraternity scene here -- I know fewer people involved in it, and it's also significantly smaller than the sorority scene.

But I do remember when Will Morris, then candidate for Undergraduate Council Vice President, shared just some of the safe-social-space innovations his fraternity's social board had rolled out: prominently-placed posters with the names and faces of responsible (sober!) party officers, who, by the way, would be carrying glowsticks. Bystander-intervention training. Comparing the guidelines he described to the situation I've seen at most parties thrown by recognized student organizations, I admit that I was impressed.

But no. Not the sort of people we would want representing Harvard as scholars or leaders.


edited to add:

A friend points out that the College's own efforts to "plan College-sanctioned social events and revamp House life" have often leaned on unrecognized social organizations: The "[BLANK] Party" that the Office of Student Life promoted in the fall as an 'inclusive social event' intended to draw the center of social gravity away from the male final clubs...was funded and organized in large part by an unrecognized all-female social organization which was dropped from the list of formal sponsors.

This is the context in which the Crimson reports, in re the College's new sanctions:

In October, Faust allocated a “lump sum” to the College from her discretionary funds for the purpose of creating more open social events. Khurana used some of the funds to bankroll a party planned by women’s groups on campus. In his letter Friday, Khurana wrote that he would “continue to invest in social alternatives and increase its social programming budgets.”


I think the strongest counterpoint I've heard so far comes from a friend on Facebook (who I'll attribute here by name iff they contact me and ask for it):

At what prices do your communities come? Who are you willing to exclude to feel included? Why should your spaces, which you share with nobody and actively bar people from, be protected because you... can perform your gender satisfactorily, are willing to shut your mouth[,] and participate in hegemonic power structures?

Your feelings aren't invalid. But relative to the perpetuation of inequity and the reification of privilege, they don't matter.

This is the strongest version of the opposition, I think. Can the administration crack down on the male final clubs while allowing sororities to survive? If not, then might the sororities simply be written off as 'acceptable' losses? In the context of a greater struggle to disrupt and dismantle certain problematic institutions of sexist and classist privilege, is the price of enabling any all-female social spaces on campus just too high?

I don't think so -- I think the dichotomy is false, and I don't think that it would be a worthwhile trade even were it not. But I can imagine that others might believe in good faith that the tradeoff is both real and advantageous, so I feel like I understand where the opposition is coming from. (If you disagree with me and you've gotten this far through this post, I'd love to chat and have my mind changed.)

My hope has always been that Dean Khurana would be crafty enough to play the long game, waging a smear campaign of attrition while simultaneously flooding the rest of the campus with institutional funds to create social spaces -- and more importantly, social institutions -- dedicated to inclusivity and popular enough to draw people away from the clubs by choice.

I believe that the University administration can navigate the nuance necessary to put pressure on the historically male final clubs without strangling safe social spaces for female students. I do not believe that the very best single-sex social spaces, which actively promote healthy discussion, advocacy, and empowerment, need be victims of a crusade against the very worst, which are indeed in need of reform, or perhaps elimination entirely.

But Rakesh Khurana is a smart man, and perhaps I am wrong.