Harvard formally adopts sanctions on single-gender clubs

Harvard University announced Tuesday that it will formally adopt an interim policy forbidding students from serving in leadership roles if they belong to unrecognized single-gender clubs.

Outgoing President Drew Faust and Harvard Corporation fellow William F. Lee shared the news via email, reporting that the Corporation—not the faculty, as expected—had voted to maintain the school’s existing policy on unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs), which has been in place on an interim basis since May 2016.

“Under the policy, students may decide to join a USGSO and remain in good standing,” a statement attached to the email asserts, though it also cautions that “decisions often have consequences, as they do here in terms of the students’ eligibility for decanal endorsements and leadership positions supported by institutional resources.”

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Reiterating that “the policy does not discipline or punish the students,” but rather “recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus,” the Corporation’s statement emphasizes its belief that the policy preserves “agency and choice” while balancing competing interests.

Despite its rhetorical concessions to freedom of association, though, the statement makes clear that the Corporation considers USGSOs a pernicious influence on campus, saying its members concurred that “the university must act” to limit the reach of such clubs.

“The USGSOs have a very different relationship to the campus than was the case a generation ago, and it cannot be seriously disputed that the overall impact is negative,” it notes, asserting that “they stand in the way of our ability to provide a fully challenging and inclusive educational experience to the diverse students currently on our campus.”

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“Diversity is central to our obligations to society and to our students. It is central to the very organization of the College, which emphasizes a residential undergraduate experience where students are randomly assigned to Houses as a means of maximizing each student’s exposure to people unlike themselves,” the statement adds. “Indeed, we are in the midst of a lawsuit, as well as an investigation by the United States government, in which we are vigorously defending these bedrock commitments.”

The Corporation specifically rejected arguments that the university should not be involved in a matter pertaining to independent organizations, saying, “we cannot ignore the responsibility we bear in relationship to our students’ experience in these settings and their effect on the broader community.”

While the statement acknowledges that the Corporation’s chosen solution is unlikely to satisfy all sides or address all concerns that have been raised about USGSOs, it expresses hope that the policy “will be a powerful inducement to change,” both in terms of dissuading students from joining such clubs and in convincing the clubs to “end their gender-exclusionary practices.”

Going forward, the Corporation wants the USGSO Faculty Committee to continue monitoring the situation, requesting that it produce periodic reports over the next five years, at which point the policy will come up for further review and discussion among the faculty.

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Kiera O’Brien, a sophomore who serves as president of the Harvard Republican Club, has been an outspoken critic of the policy.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the Harvard administration has framed the sanctions issue as a referendum on the moral character of the students who choose to join single gender social groups,” she told Campus Reform. “Social clubs are a product of a lack of satisfactory spaces at Harvard and students who have found support and belonging within single-gender social groups should not be punished for their affiliation.”

Student surveys conducted by The Harvard Crimson suggest that O’Brien is far from alone in her position.

In November 2016, the Crimson determined that 60 percent of undergraduate students favored lifting the sanctions on USGSO members, a figure that had risen to 61 percent by the time of a second poll last month.

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