Friday, October 7, 2016

FAQ on the Nondiscrimination Motion

The signatories to the Nondiscrimination Motion (see below) are frequently asked, in various ways, to explain the context, intent, and effects of the Motion. What follows are responses prepared by a few of the signatories.

Q: In simple language, what does the motion say?
A: That Harvard should not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join.

Q: Why are you bringing this motion?
A: The motion reaffirms a principle that has guided Harvard throughout its modern history. However, Dean Khurana and President Faust announced a new policy last spring: In the future, students will be ineligible for certain College distinctions (being a team captain or being nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, for example) if they belong to any unrecognized single-gender social organization (USGSO) consisting entirely of Harvard students (including any of the final clubs and certain of the sororities and fraternities to which Harvard students belong). Our motion would prevent the new USGSO policy from taking effect while firmly establishing the broad principle that students’ private affiliations are their own business, not Harvard’s. Because the motion codifies common understandings and current practice, we are aware of no other effect it would have on College operations.

Q: Why are you sticking up for the final clubs?
A: We are not defending the final clubs any more than the Supreme Court defends flag-burning. It doesn’t matter whether we like the final clubs or not; students have a right to belong to organizations of which we disapprove, just as they have a right to read books we find objectionable.

Q: But as a private institution, isn’t Harvard free to restrict students’ rights?
A: We are not lawyers and we offer no opinion about whether the USGSO policy is lawful. But as a general principle, those who are students at Harvard should be as free in their rights of speech and association as they are as private citizens. Harvard’s responsibility is not to restrict those freedoms on their behalf but to help them learn to exercise those freedoms wisely. While Harvard may certainly seek to educate and even to warn students about club memberships, learning to make moral choices entails the right to make, in their private lives, what Harvard may consider moral mistakes.

Q: Aren’t some organizations so extremely odious that everyone would agree students shouldn’t join them?
A: The motion speaks not to what students should do but what they may do. Current Harvard policy specifically prohibits asking job candidates about club memberships of any kind. Students who are candidates for Harvard distinctions are owed similar respect for their private choices.

Q: Are you sure Harvard hasn’t in the past judged people by their organizational affiliations?
A: Certainly in Harvard’s Puritan days, but we are not aware of examples within living memory. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1954, against withering attacks from Washington, Harvard’s president defended FAS professor Wendell Furry’s right to join the Communist party without being sanctioned by the University. In 1992, when Harvard deliberated on how to reconcile ROTC’s discriminatory policies with the participation of Harvard students as cadets, the Verba Committee specifically rejected as “unacceptably paternalistic” the option of sanctioning students for joining ROTC.

Q: Isn’t it hyperbole to bring up McCarthyism in this context? This is not a civil liberties issue. It’s about how Harvard as a private institution relates to a few obnoxious clubs comprised entirely of Harvard students.
A: The test cases for erosion of fundamental civil liberties often involve offensive activities. Erosion of anyone’s basic civil rights sets a precedent for wider encroachments at a later date—a broad principle that Harvard should be teaching, rather than undermining, through its decisions about student life. Harvard students should not have to sacrifice their free association rights even if Harvard can lawfully restrict those rights.

Q: The USGSO policy stops no one from doing anything. It just says that you can’t represent Harvard if you belong to one of these clubs. What’s wrong with that?
A: A worthy Rhodes candidate, for example, does not become less worthy when she is discovered to belong to a sorority. So the USGSO policy discriminates against students on the basis of something unrelated to the roles from which it would bar them. In the interests of inclusiveness, it has the effect of dividing the student body into USGSO members on the one hand, and students eligible for leadership and scholarship opportunities on the other. Forcing students to make this choice would harm rather than enhance community. And if the USGSO policy is morally sound, then Harvard’s strict policy prohibiting inquiries about club memberships of job candidates must be too lenient. Faculty might consider how they would react if Harvard imposed something similar to the USGSO policy on their private activities and those of their colleagues—making them ineligible to chair their departments or to receive Harvard nominations for prizes if they belonged to certain organizations unrelated to their professional activities.

Q: But the USGSO policy is narrowly targeted. What harm could it do except to a few clubs?
A: Even if every one of the USGSOs were valueless to their members—which has not been established—the choices of students to join them, however unwisely, should be protected. We should not erode the civil liberties of our students even when we think that we know better than they do what is good for them.

Q: Something needs to be done about the problem of campus sexual assault. A lot of assaults take place at Final Clubs—doesn’t that justify going after them with the USGSO policy?
A: We support aggressive efforts to reduce campus sexual assault, but the connection between the cited data on sexual assault and the USGSO policy is weak. Pressuring the final clubs to admit women and pressuring men not to join them are not well-grounded policy responses to the sexual assault data, no matter how desirable these steps may be for other reasons. Including the fraternities, sororities, and women’s final clubs in the USGSO policy on general principles is an even less justified incursion into individual rights.

Q: Are you saying that Harvard should have a system of fraternities and sororities?
A: No, we aren’t. There has been no faculty discussion of fraternities and sororities, their sociology, prevalence, or influence as far as we are aware, nor of what felt need they satisfy. We do not advocate any change in Harvard’s posture on sororities and fraternities.

Q: But what about the entrenched privilege, the access to powerful alumni, through the final clubs, to which women have no access?
A: We offer no opinion about whether final clubs should admit women, but the principle that single-gender alumni networks should be opened up does not seem to be consistently applied. Even if all the final clubs became coeducational, other important single-gender alumni networks—of athletes and choral singers, for example—would be unaffected by the USGSO policy. It would be more in the spirit of an educational institution to strengthen alumni networks that are too weak than to weaken others on the basis that they are too strong.

Q: Harvard has such broad nondiscrimination policies already. Do we really need more?
A: It’s a long list indeed, including “race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, creed, national origin, age, ancestry, veteran status, disability, military service, or any other legally protected basis.” Membership in organizations is not protected, but should be, in our opinion.

Q: Does Title IX require us to do this?
A: The FAS Title IX Policies and Procedures memo states that off-campus activities are within Harvard’s purview if they may create a hostile environment for Harvard students. The memo does not call for specific across-the-board action against all USGSOs. Behavioral problems presented by certain clubs do indeed call for a serious and emphatic response—but the response should emerge from due fact-finding, study, and deliberation, and should be restricted to those clubs that create a hostile environment.

Q: But the President decided on this policy. Doesn’t that take it out of the hands of the FAS?
A: According to the Fifth Statute of the University, Harvard College is in the “immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.” Policies about who may receive fellowship nominations and who may be captain of a team or president of a student group are therefore matters under the purview of the FAS, whose elected representatives on the Faculty Council were not consulted before this policy was imposed.

Harry Lewis
Eric Nelson
Margo Seltzer
Richard Thomas

The Motion is: Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal. 

Shaye Cohen, Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy
Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology
Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science
Richard Losick, Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology
Jason Mitchell, Professor of Psychology
Eric Nelson, Robert M. Beren Professor of Government
Hanspeter Pfister, An Wang Professor of Computer Science
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Margo Seltzer, Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science
Richard Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics
Helen Vendler, A Kingsley Porter University Professor
James Waldo, Gordon McKay Professor of Practice of Computer Science


  1. What are the `finals club'?
    Are there other clubs that are `bad'
    Are there clubs that aren't so bad that might be targeted.

    Even if not, AGREE with you and will add another reason:
    if you opress a `bad' group then the topic shifts from:

    Their behaviour is awful
    They have a right to not be oppressed.

    Much better to have a discussion of their behaviour.

  2. Bill, read No Values Test further down.