Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Lisa Poole/AP)

Harvard University on Friday announced new steps to combat gender discrimination in student social organizations, an action meant to curb the influence of certain venerable, all-male societies known as “final clubs” as well as fraternities, sororities and other groups that accept only men or only women.

Starting in fall 2017, the university said, new undergraduates who join “unrecognized single-gender organizations” will not be allowed to hold leadership positions in officially recognized student organizations and on athletic teams.

In addition, any student who is a member of an unrecognized social organization will be ineligible to receive recommendations from the dean of Harvard College for Rhodes scholarships and other prestigious academic opportunities.

The announcement came amid growing debate that has pitted Harvard officials against advocates for single-gender organizations, including alumni.

“A truly inclusive community requires that students have the opportunity to participate in the life of the campus free from exclusion on arbitrary grounds,” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in a letter released Friday that endorsed the new policy. “Although the fraternities, sororities and final clubs are not formally recognized by the college, they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.”

Faust, the university’s first female president, urged the organizations to “discard their gender-based membership practices” but said Harvard would not prohibit students from joining those that continue to exclude men or women. The policy changes will not affect the 6,700 current undergraduates or those about to enroll this fall. How students will react, and whether the new policy will lead to changes in membership criteria for the clubs, remains unknown.

For months the university has signaled its skepticism toward final clubs — including the famous 225-year-old Porcellian Club — and other single-gender groups. President Theodore Roosevelt, among other notables, was a Porcellian.

“We are 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,” the all-male Porcellians said Friday afternoon in a statement issued through a spokeswoman, Marcia Horowitz.

Some outside the Harvard community criticized what they called “a stunning attack” by the university on freedom of association.

“Outrageously, Harvard has decided that 2016 is the right time to revive the blacklist,” Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in a statement. “This year’s undesirables are members of off-campus clubs that don’t match Harvard’s political preferences. In the 1950s, perhaps Communists would have been excluded. I had hoped that universities were past the point of asking people, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a group we don’t like?’ Sadly, they are not.”

For most of its 380-year history, Harvard functioned almost entirely for men. Doors opened for women gradually during the 20th century, with the movement accelerating in the 1960s and ’70s. Harvard officially merged in 1999 with its longtime “sister” school, Radcliffe College for women. During that era of transition, Harvard withdrew official recognition of all-male final clubs in 1984.

Now, some alumni say Harvard is unfairly targeting private organizations that provide benefits to men and women.

“Final clubs are not disappearing no matter what the university has to say,” Rick Porteus, graduate president of the exclusive Fly Club, told The Washington Post on Thursday night. “In terms of how the university makes it difficult for students to exercise the freedom of association, or penalizes students for exercising that right, we’ll have to see.”

Porteus, speaking before the action was announced, said he wondered about Harvard’s agenda.

“Is this about eliminating single-gender organizations or about eliminating some of the older, propertied clubs?” he asked. “I think it’s specifically about targeting older clubs, and unfortunately female final clubs will be collateral damage.”

Ariel Stoddard, an alumna from the class of 2010, who is graduate president of the all-female Sablière Society, expressed fear Thursday evening about what will happen to her club.

“We’re scared we’re going to die,” she said in an interview before the announcement.

“At this point it’s pretty clear Harvard is pushing a gender-inclusive agenda,” Stoddard said. “We’re not even thinking we can remain single gender. We’re trying to think how we can go co-ed in a safe, effective way. It’s hard to figure out how this will help women or improve the social experience. Harvard isn’t giving us a ton of support in this.”

Harvard officials said they had to act to uphold the principle of non-discrimination.

“We have heard heartfelt statements from students about the benefits they have experienced by belonging to a final club, fraternity or sorority, and we are not questioning their experiences,” Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, wrote in a letter to Faust that recommended the policy changes. “But we do expect leaders of our athletic teams, our recognized student groups and those seeking a dean’s endorsement to share in the college’s responsibility of fostering a non-discriminatory culture at Harvard.”

Here is Faust’s letter:

And here is Khurana’s:

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