Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, photographed on the university's campus in 2009. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Touring early America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the people’s propensity to form associations for every purpose under the sun: “religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small . . . to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes.”

Associational proliferation buttressed individual freedom, Tocqueville believed. As he explained, private groups are nimbler at orchestrating cultural and social life — “maintain[ing] and renew[ing] the circulation of sentiments and ideas” — than government could ever be.

States “exercise an insupportable tyranny, even without wishing to, for a government knows only how to dictate precise rules; it imposes the sentiments and the ideas that it favors, and it is always hard to distinguish its counsels from its orders,” he wrote.

Harvard University’s administrators should read Tocqueville’s book “Democracy in America.” Their institution is not, strictly speaking, a state — it’s more of a state within a state, up there in Cambridge, Mass. In every other way, the school’s new crackdown on fraternities, sororities and a local variant, “final clubs,” epitomizes the clueless illiberalism against which the French sociologist warned.

Harvard has concluded that, in response to sexual assault and other manifestations of gender inequity, it must reform campus culture. Single-gender social organizations are unavoidably discriminatory, President Drew Gilpin Faust noted, “in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion,” contrary to what Harvard stands for.

Women at Harvard University are protesting the school's decision to sanction organizations that only admit men or only admit women. (Flavia Cuervo)

Being private, self-funded and, technically, off-campus, the groups can’t be banned; but they can, and will, be discouraged and stigmatized. Starting with the class admitted in 2017, no student members of single-gender fraternities, sororities or final clubs may hold “leadership positions” in Harvard’s hundreds of officially “recognized” undergraduate organizations. Nor may they apply for fellowships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, that require an official college endorsement.

So: Eschew male-only organizations unaffiliated with Harvard, and you may be captain of a male-only organization affiliated with Harvard, the football team. Avoid female-only groups, and you remain eligible for a scholarship honoring a notorious male British imperialist.

Only Harvard, I suppose, could so cunningly manipulate its hyper-competitive students’ ambitions in the cause of social leveling.

Only Harvard could proclaim its opposition to arbitrary “privilege and exclusion” while running a $38 billion hedge fund (a.k.a. the Harvard Endowment) and rejecting 95 percent of applicants — based on murky criteria rumored to include everything from SAT scores to alumni connections.

There must be no exclusive clubs within this exclusive club. Dean Rakesh Khurana, the new policy’s intellectual author, declared that “their fundamental principles are antithetical to our institutional values,” with no apparent awareness of the chilly authoritarianism he was directing at the approximately 25 percent of students who belong to the groups in question — and who, at last check, have a perfect right to be at odds with any “institutional values” they please. (Disclosure: I went to Harvard long ago, but did not belong to any single-gender organizations.)

Here’s another question, posed by hundreds of Harvard women who protested the new policy in Harvard Yard on Tuesday: How did sororities and female-only final clubs, from which many women derive solidarity and support, become collateral damage in a campaign to end alleged male privilege and male violence?

Final clubs, fraternities and sororities do not publish membership lists. How, then, does Harvard propose to prove who’s who? Hidden cameras? Informants? Waterboarding?

An “advisory committee” will deal with those “enforcement” issues, Harvard says. Also on its agenda may be a contradiction between the new edict and the constitution of Harvard’s elected Undergraduate Council, which expressly opposes “restriction of any one’s freedom of public speech, assembly, expression, or association.” As the president and vice president of that Harvard-recognized body point out in an open letter, “vetting of elected members of student government based on affiliation in certain groups is detrimental, and fundamentally opposed, to . . . the democratic process.”

By its terms, Harvard’s new policy implies administration veto power over the selection of editors at the school’s literary magazine and radio station, raising knotty free-press issues. More work for that advisory committee.

What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice guilt by association and collective punishment. Sexual assault is a serious issue. Ditto gender discrimination. At their worst, fraternity brothers have committed their share, or more, of both. (They’ve been falsely vilified, too, as the attorneys suing Rolling Stone over its fabricated story of rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house could tell you.)

At their best, though, fraternities and sororities can serve Tocquevillian purposes — not just to dress up in togas and “give fêtes” but also to raise money for charity, promote athletics, support study and train young people for voluntarism after college.

Khurana, knowing better, says Harvard is all about “preparing citizens and citizen-leaders to bring people together and embrace an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.” And he’s going to start by disrupting forms of togetherness those future leaders had already chosen for themselves.

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