Inside the hallowed halls of Harvard University, one of the most exclusive colleges in the world, there are ever more hallowed, exclusive halls: those of the university’s “final clubs,” or undergraduate social clubs known for their selectivity and secrecy. But now, in the age of trigger warnings and raging debates about sexual assault on campus, one final club under fire for its all-male membership feels compelled for the first time in its 225-year history to speak out in its own defense.
In what appears to be an unprecedented move in recent memory, inspired by a Harvard report last month that linked final clubs with “nonconsensual sexual contact,” the Porcellian Club — which counted no less than President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes among its members — has gone public.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time an officer of the [Porcellian Club] has granted an on the record statement to a newspaper since our founding in 1791,” Charles M. Storey, Class of 1982, wrote in an email to the Harvard Crimson, which broke the story. “This reflects both the PC’s abiding interest in privacy and the importance of the situation.”
Storey turned out to be incorrect when a Crimson article from 1984 surfaced with the comments of a Porcellian president on the occasion of the club’s decision to admit an African-American member for the first time. But his comments came a day before final clubs are to meet with Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who told the Crimson that “single gender social organizations at Harvard College remain at odds with the aspirations of the 21st century society to which the College hopes and expects our students will contribute.”
Storey told the Crimson that forcing the Porcellian to accept women, as some other final clubs already have, would make sexual assaults more likely. After all, women can’t be sexually assaulted if they aren’t there.
“Given our policies, we are mystified as to why the current administration feels that forcing our club to accept female members would reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus,” Storey wrote. “Forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct….
“I sincerely hope that the administration will not set the precedent of creating a ‘blacklist’ of organizations that students cannot join,” Storey wrote. “Such McCarthyism is a dangerous road that would be a blow to academic freedom, the spirit of tolerance, and the long tradition of free association on campus.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, a graduate member of the Porcellian Club, who did not wish to be identified because of the club’s secrecy rules, agreed.
“The college is trying to expel students for joining our club by arguing that we contribute to the problem of sexual assault on campus,” he wrote in an email. “We elect about a dozen sophomores each year and invite them to have dinners with alumni of the club who have stayed involved and cherish this cross-generational community of Harvard students. We don’t host parties. We don’t allow guests on the premises of our club. How could we possibly be connected to the problem of sexual assault on campus?”
The Porcellian Club, founded in 1791 and thought to be one of the oldest social groups in America, did not have anything to do with sex, it said.
“The goal is really to build a community that crosses time and spans generations,” the Porcellian member told The Post. “We have dinners in Cambridge and all over the world. Our club is about developing deep male friendships, a level of community that is rare in today’s disconnected, bowling-alone world. We don’t want to be involved in any one else’s business, we just want to be left alone to carry on our 225-year traditions in peace.”
Storey also told the Crimson that the final club’s members are “elected without regard to socioeconomic background, religion, national origin, race or sexual orientation,” and the club “reflects the diversity of the male population of Harvard College.”
Some degree of this diversity, it appeared, was on display more than 75 years ago.
“The Pore [as the Porcellian Club is also known] is most likely to elect the sons and relatives of old Porkies, closely examines each candidate’s family tree,” a 1940 article in Time noted. “But congeniality counts as much as pedigree, and the three to 18 members whom the Pore elects from each class must be jolly good fellows. (Its definition of good fellowship, the leftist Harvard Progressive recently remarked, ‘rests on a good liquor capacity and a full agreement on the meaning of the word “meatball.”‘)” The piece added: “The Pore abounds in crew men and polo players, seldom picks football players or Crimson editors.”
Time also offered a 40s portrait of a typical Porcelain:
A Porcellian wears a small gold pig on his watch chain, a long tweed jacket, tight flannel pants and a short haircut, generally contents himself with a gentleman’s three Cs and a D in his studies. Most inviolable tradition: Once a Porcellian always a Porcellian. Porkies keep up their Porkie friendships all their lives, go back religiously to the annual Porkie banquet at which new members are initiated. When a Porkie marries, fellow Porkies always gather round him after the ceremony and sing the club song. From the Pore’s clubrooms, non-Porcellians are religiously excluded. In the last 20 years only five men have been excepted from this rule: the Prince of Wales, Al Smith, Herbert Hoover, under Secretary of the Treasury Roswell Magill and onetime Budget Director Lew Douglas, who were wined & dined in the club.
So important was selection to the Porcelllian Club to young Harvard men of yesteryear that young Franklin Delano Roosevelt was devastated when he got rejected. “It was a crushing blow,” Joseph Karabel wrote in “The Chosen.” It was “a deep humiliation for a young patrician who had taken for granted entry into the most rarefied social circles. … More than fifteen years later, when he was assistant secretary of the navy, Roosevelt told Sheffield Cowles (the son of Teddy Roosevelt’s sister Anna) that his rejection by Porcellian had been the greatest disappointment of my life’ — a failure made still worse by the fact that two of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons, Theodore Jr. and Kermit, had been elected to the club. Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt went so far as to claim that the incident had given her husband an ‘inferiority complex,’ albeit one that ‘had helped him to identify with life’s outcasts.'”
Although a 2001 biography of Norman Mailer — Harvard Class of 1943 — noted it “would have been unthinkable … for a Jew to be invited to join one of the so-called final clubs like Porcellian,” times appear to have changed. In 1994, the Crimson examined the Porcellian’s “punch book,” which included members’ comments about the current crop of candidates.
“Prep school background, region and legacy status do not appear to be the sole determinants of membership they may once have been, but the book shows that they remain factors,” the Crimson concluded. It added: “The evaluation process is a lot like figure skating. Points are deducted for technical mistakes in the conversations during which prospectives are evaluated by members. The deductions can be huge. One candidate received a ‘black ball’ from a club member because he ‘spilled malt on my leg at the turkey shoot — the first round tryout to get into the club.'”
Whether final clubs are at odds with the 21st century or not, Harvard may not be able to eliminate them. If this week’s meeting with the administration doesn’t produce some kind of consensus, Storey implied a legal challenge might be next.
“As a club that is completely independent of Harvard, which accepts no funding from Harvard, which owns its own property, and believes fervently in the right to self-determination, that decision is ours, not Harvard’s, to make,” he told the Crimson.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include references to a 1984 Crimson piece that included comments from a Porcellian president.
More from Morning Mix