People walk near Memorial Church at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

Updated

Two years ago, Harvard University issued an ultimatum to single-gender student groups.

Go co-ed, or forfeit members’ opportunities to hold leadership positions on campus and to win the university’s endorsement for prestigious postgraduate fellowships.

Last week, a Harvard sorority became the first student organization to choose a third option: shutting down. The national Delta Gamma organization announced that its Zeta Phi-Cambridge Area chapter would close. The choice to disband was made in a May vote by members of the local chapter, which triggered a 60-day comment period, according to a statement from the national association.

Meanwhile, former members of the shuttered Delta Gamma chapter are forming a new, co-ed social organization, which they are calling Kali Praxi, according to a recent graduate, Basia Rosenbaum. A news release announcing the new group cited a “deficit in community spaces” resulting from the university’s sanctions.

The dissolution of Harvard’s chapter of Delta Gamma, established in 1994, highlights the ongoing debate — which has roiled the Ivy League campus — over gender discrimination, sexual harassment and freedom of association. In particular, it reveals the difficulty that all-female groups face in responding to penalties designed to stop forms of mostly male predation that have brought schools into conflict with federal law.

In announcing the planned sanctions against individual students in 2016, Harvard proved itself willing to take drastic action to bring social clubs to heel. College and university administrators have for years wrung their hands about unrecognized fraternities and other clubs, arguing that they have little power over groups that operate outside the institutional purview of the schools. (At Harvard, final clubs cut ties with the university in 1984 when presented with the choice of going co-ed or losing official recognition.)

The sanctions followed closely on the heels of a university report on sexual assault prevention that upbraided all-male final clubs — of which there are currently six — for “deeply misogynistic attitudes.” It said that 47 percent of female seniors who attended male final club events or participated in female final clubs themselves had reported “experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard faces three open investigations into its compliance with Title IX, the federal prohibition on gender discrimination in schools receiving public funds.

The sanctions, which took effect for students arriving on campus in fall 2017, applied not just to male final clubs, however, but to all single-gender organizations. At the time of the announcement, two formerly male final clubs had already voted to admit women.

The broad-brush approach rankled some members and alumni of all-female clubs. Writing in the Harvard Crimson, three members of the Sablière Society’s graduate board accused Harvard of pursuing “damage control” with all-male groups and, in the process, sacrificing “support systems, safe spaces, and alumnae networks” cultivated by female clubs.

That society ultimately went co-ed. As did many other groups, including university-recognized organizations such as the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one of the country’s oldest theater troupes, whose performances featured only men for 174 years.

Some of the all-male final clubs have resisted the movement toward gender-neutral admission, joining hands with several fraternities to engage a law firm pursuing lobbying efforts on their behalf, the Harvard Crimson reported. They’ve set their sights on the PROSPER Act, a bill introduced in the House at the end of last year that, with modifications, could potentially endanger federal research funding if Harvard goes through with the penalties.

Harvard’s three unrecognized sororities, meanwhile, have taken different approaches. First, all three defied the university’s sanctions, endorsed by the university’s board of trustees in December 2017, and went through with their standard recruitment process the following spring semester.

One sorority said this summer that it would go gender-neutral. Now, Delta Gamma is disbanding to avoid that fate.

“The decision does not mean that we are succumbing to the university’s new sanctions and policies regarding participation in unrecognized single-gender organizations like ours,” the group’s president, Wilma Johnson Wilbanks, said in a press release. “We will continue to champion our right to exist on campuses everywhere. We believe the value of sorority is too great.”

At the same time, the release made clear that the sorority had been run off campus by the penalties. “It is our sincere hope to return to the Cambridge Area should conditions for single-gender organizations improve,” the statement read.

Margaret Wilson, the president of Harvard’s Delta Gamma chapter, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Whether and how women and men differ in organizing themselves socially are questions of considerable debate. A 2013 study in Scientific Reports argues that women “invest more in stable and secure networks.” Another peer-reviewed study, published in 2015, finds that women prefer one-on-one relationships while men pursue “multimale groups (in effect, clubs),” but also points to a limitation in the literature arising from data that draws mainly on online forms of sociability rather than real-life interaction.

In a 2013 column in the Guardian, Naomi Wolf, the feminist author and activist, asked, “Do we still need women-only spaces?” Sort of, she answered. She observed that the overall aim of inclusion might leave “a place for the occasional same-sex discussion group, training program and private gathering.”

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