The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Harvard’s infantilizing private club policy is part of a bigger agenda

A tour group visits the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012.
A tour group visits the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, is a computer science professor at Harvard University.

Three years ago Harvard College announced that students could no longer join single-gender off-campus social clubs if they wanted to hold student-group leadership positions, to captain varsity sports teams or to win the university’s endorsement for Rhodes scholarships and the like. The rules fell short of absolute prohibitions, but their practical effect so far has been to wipe out women’s clubs while leaving most men’s clubs largely unscathed. Six women’s clubs and four sororities went co-ed or shut down, the Harvard Crimson reported in August 2018, with this result: “no established women’s groups are left to welcome the Class of 2022 to campus.”

The policy was hard to defend, as the college’s shifting rationales appeared to acknowledge. The initial rollout of the rules highlighted correlations between sexual assault and off-campus clubs. But when the data didn’t hold up, the rationale was broadened. The policy was said to be a strike against misogyny (though it would mostly hurt women’s clubs) and hereditary privilege (though the blood no longer runs blue in the men’s clubs). 

Even more vaguely, the sanctions were justified on the supple principles of “non-discrimination” and offense to Harvard’s “deepest values” — and all student clubs would be monitored for “inclusivity.” No First Amendment right was implicated, the argument seemed to be, because as a private institution Harvard is free to outdo the Constitution in pursuit of justice.

A few of the men’s clubs had a reputation as places where women would be well advised to use the buddy system and to watch their drinks. But rather than using education or police action to shut these few down, Harvard tried to find a lawful method that would leave the authorities with clean hands while getting rid of them all. Whether the university’s method was indeed lawful is being challenged in court by national fraternity and sorority organizations.

It is increasingly evident that this strategy was meant to advance Harvard’s larger social agenda of reprogramming students. The university’s language about educational purpose has shifted drastically over the decades. When setting out its goals, Harvard used to talk about developing students’ independence and self-sufficiency — rhetoric that has now largely been replaced by talk of intentional, directed change. “We hope to foster the conditions for social and personal transformation,” said a recent announcement

Scripting what sorts of private clubs students may join is apparently part of a new educational agenda to transform students from the unenlightened souls they were in high school into the right-thinking graduates Harvard wants them to be, rather than empowering students to figure out who they are and how to use the freedom to decide who they will become. It is an infantilizing, we-know-better-than-you-who-you-should-be view of educational purpose — even though a liberal education is about the art of living and thinking as a free person.

Against this context came the filing this month of proposed federal legislation, the Collegiate Freedom of Association Act, a House bill that would affirm students’ rights to participate in social organizations, putting an end to Harvard’s sanctions. The bill is sponsored by a Harvard graduate, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran representing urban Phoenix, and its 18 co-sponsors include another Harvard graduate, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), whose sprawling rural district runs from north of Albany all the way to Canada.

Read those names again. Neither of these sponsors seems to be of the Puritan stock that Harvard expunged from its anthem to make it more inclusive. They are male and female. Republican and Democrat. From the rural Northeast and the urban Southwest. I can hear the rage from the dean’s office: Don’t these people realize that the sanctions were put in place to help people like them? 

But Harvard can’t claim that its alumni, Gallego and Stefanik, don’t understand Harvard. They are exactly what Harvard says it is trying to create, “citizens and citizen-leaders for society.” They are, moreover, evidence of the real value of diversity at Harvard — admit a cross-section of America and, by making them live and study together, produce graduates who value the freedom to be different.

Harvard can now decide whether, in the midst of waging serious fights in Washington for protecting undocumented immigrant students and against endowment taxes, it wants to take on Congress over single-gender clubs. Perhaps the university will instead acknowledge that with a diverse student population comes all the wonderfully unpredictable complexity of America, whose never-satisfied people always want to think against the grain, argue against authority and meet up with whom they wish.

Read more:

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David Von Drehle: Harvard has betrayed its mission to educate

Robert J. Samuelson: Here’s how to fix the college admissions system. Warning: You might hate this.

Meghan Kruger: We shouldn’t be doing more on college admissions. We should be doing less.

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