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Harvard faculty panel recommends banning fraternities, sororities and other social groups

Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
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A Harvard University faculty committee tasked with changing the school’s policy on student social groups has proposed that undergraduates be banned from joining fraternities, sororities and similar organizations, saying that efforts to curb “pernicious behavior” by some members of such groups have failed.

The proposal, released Wednesday, follows steps taken last year by Harvard president Drew Faust to stem the influence of university single-gender social organizations, or USGSOs.

These groups are not recognized as Harvard organizations but nevertheless, as Faust said in a May 2016 letter to the community, “play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.” The traditionally male final clubs are the oldest social clubs at Harvard, starting in the 18th century, and were seen as especially exclusionary even after some began to admit women, and female final clubs were formed.

The faculty committee said in its report, which was first reported by the Harvard Crimson student newspaper, that the school’s efforts to stem the influence of these groups had not worked.

The acute challenge faced by the College is that these organizations are at odds with the “long-held and oft expressed view” that student body diversity is essential to Harvard College’s pedagogical objectives and institutional mission,” a view that was reaffirmed by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in February 2016.
The final clubs in particular were products of their time. Due to their resistance to change over the decades, they have lapsed into products behind their time. Despite repeated attempts to encourage them to reform, there seems to be no simple solution that will bring them into greater accord with the forward-looking aspirations of the University.

The panel recommended that all students currently enrolled — including the new freshman class starting at Harvard this fall — be allowed to join or remain in the groups, but that starting in 2018, new student undergraduates be barred from joining. The idea would be to have all such organizations shuttered by 2022.  The report says:

It is important to note here that the Committee and College leaders understand the distinctions between the various types of USGSOs. While the issues that the College is endeavoring to solve are rooted in many ways in the property-owning, wealthy, and exclusive final clubs, the growth of other types of USGSOs in recent years — often as well-intentioned antidotes to the effects of the final clubs — are also of concern in their participation in and perpetuation of social structures that discriminate based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. In order to move beyond the gendered and exclusive club system that has persisted — and even expanded — over time, a new paradigm is needed, one that is rooted in an appreciation of diversity, commitment to inclusivity, and positive contributions to the social experience for all students.

In her May 6, 2016 letter, Faust announced that undergraduates who join these groups would be barred from leading Harvard-recognized student organizations and athletic teams and would not receive recommendations from the Harvard College dean for elite academic opportunities after graduation.

Why we’re letting women — and all gender identities — into our fraternity at Harvard

That decision was strongly criticized in the Harvard community, leading to the creation of the faculty committee that published its preliminary report Wednesday. It suggests that Harvard follow the policies that have been imposed at Williams College and Bowdoin College, which bar undergraduate participation in social clubs.

Although the committee report said there was “strong majority” support for the policy proposal, the Crimson predicted that the new recommendation will “likely draw heavy criticism from both alumni and undergraduates in social groups, who have repeatedly attacked the existing policy as overreaching and unnecessary.”

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 international and national men’s fraternities, issued a statement saying:

Freedom of association and speech are paramount for the intellectual and spiritual growth of students. We urge Harvard to focus on creating a culture of health and safety on campus that also respects students’ rights.

The policy proposal will be presented to the faculty for open discussions during the fall semester and the committee will hold discussions about it. A final report will be presented to school leaders. Faust will decide whether to accept or reject the policy.

The report proposes the following wording as a guide to a new policy, recognizing that the language could change:

Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the College. The College will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the Administrative Board.

Here’s the report:

Usgso Committee Report 2017 Final Draft[1] on Scribd