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July 17, 2017

The Phoenix, a Final Club at Harvard, is located inside a red brick building just off campus. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

A faculty panel at Harvard wants to bar students from joining clubs on and off campus that they consider exclusionary and is recommending the university phase out all fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations by 2022.

The recommendation has reignited criticism from alumni and raised questions about how much control administrators should have over students.

Most of Harvard's exclusive Final Clubs, like The Spee and The Phoenix, are located just off campus in Harvard Square.

Only selected undergraduates are familiar with - or even care about - what goes on inside these stately red brick buildings.

But these clubs are very much on the radar of university administrators, who see them as promoting a culture of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct.

Last May, President Drew Faust announced that if single-gender student clubs don't go co-ed, their members would be barred from leadership positions on sports teams and other organizations. While addressing sexual assault was the initial point, Faust hinted at a broader problem.

"Harvard is and must be a community of idealists," Faust told graduates and alumni at last Spring's commencement.

At last Spring's commencement, Faust spoke about reasserting the university's commitment to diversity.

"Bringing students of diverse backgrounds to live together and learn from one another enacts that commitment as we work to transform diversity into belonging,” Faust said. “In a world divided by difference we at Harvard strive to be united by it."

Citing those values, a faculty committee is now calling for transformational change.

While initially focused on gender, the committee says that misses a larger problem. Even if they go co-ed, Final Clubs are exclusive by nature, and that, the committee says, contradicts the school's mission of inclusion.

The committee is recommending that, starting in 2018, students that join any social club considered exclusionary will face discipline.

"The mission at Harvard College is to prepare people to be leaders,” said psychologist Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. “The way the school operates should reflect that mission."

Gardner says he understands why targeting social clubs is controversial, but believes Harvard is moving in the right direction.

“We’re living in a very diverse country and a very diverse world and I think part of college’s goal should be to reflect that diversity and prepare people for living in such a diverse world,” Gardner said.

Gardner sees the Final Clubs as holdovers from the 19th century, when privilege and social strata mattered a lot more than they do today.

“Harvard College has an obligation to itself but also to the wider world to encourage the kind of mixing of individuals of all different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders as much as possible, and to make a statement that if you want go to a place that doesn’t do that there are 3,000 other schools but at this school we’re going to be as open and as democratic and as un-segregated as possible.”

Still, many professors are against the proposed ban. None were willing to talk on the record, calling the issue too sensitive. It's also difficult to gauge student reaction given that it's summer break. But everyone expects a robust debate when classes resume this fall.

“It’s going to be very controversial,” said Paul Reville, who also teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “There’s a tension here between rights and freedom of association on the one hand and on the other hand a campus that is working very hard to establish a social atmosphere that is equitable and where people don’t feel excluded and left out and not part of the mainstream.”

Reville wouldn't tell us his personal opinion, but we do know that some alumni are upset, accusing administrators of what they call gross overreach.

"Deep in their hearts they must realize it's utter nonsense to blame sexual assaults on these Clubs," said Harvey Silverglate, a Harvard Law graduate and prominent civil rights attorney in Cambridge. Silverglate is also representing the Fly Club in what may result in a lawsuit.

“In American higher education, generally, there are now more administrators than teachers, and it allows them to increase not only their numbers but also their power and to remake student life more to their liking rather than to the student liking,” Silverglate said.

The faculty panel recommends soliciting feedback from the wider Harvard community through the fall. At that point, President Faust will decide whether to enact the ban.

If Faust approves it, Harvard would follow a handful of other private schools, including Williams, Middlebury, Amherst and Bowdoin, that have barred students from joining fraternities and sororities.

Related: How One College Increased Diversity By Focusing On Class

Listen: WGBH's Callie Crossley explains why we should care about the fate of selective clubs at elite colleges and universities.


increasing access and success, higher ed, Harvard

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