Friday, November 10, 2017

"Let me get this straight"

So began the email I received from an alum a couple of days ago. It went on, "Harvard bans final clubs, and puts on this workshop?" He linked to some stories about the workshop on anal sex being offered during Harvard Sex Week. (Check the Tuesday evening schedule.)

Stop laughing. I want to make a serious point here.

I am not against Sex Week. In fact, I like Sex Week. It is sad and strange that many 18 to 22 year olds are no more knowledgeable about sex than their parents or grandparents were. That said, it is a reasonable question whether this particular form of educational programming should be a high priority. I would rank Sex Week above some other things we do but below many more things that we should be doing but aren't. But that is just me. Others will have other views—chacun à son goût. Of course, donors also have their own tastes, and I know some who are redirecting their annual donations accordingly.

What I hate is our pretense of moral superiority. The weaponization of "inclusion" is the most sanctimonious exercise I can remember at Harvard, and that is saying something in a place never known for its humility. 

On how many occasions over the past two years have deans, presidents, and faculty members lectured opponents of the single-gender ban on the basis that being a member of a single-gender club was inconsistent with Harvard's deepest values? Or, as one faculty member put it, that of course we don't tolerate intolerant people—where the category of intolerant people includes women who hang out off campus for a few hours a week with other women for reasons they know best? (Read the letter written by 23 undergraduate women.)

The arc of history, we are told (seriously, we have heard that phrase twice), points toward the day when every single member of this community feels completely comfortable in Harvard's social environment, where everyone is welcome in every organization that any student might join. I am tired of being told that students who want to live their private lives as they wish are bad people.

Guess what? Some students have cultural, moral, or religious objections to anal sex, and a number of other practices Sex Week is teaching. Some students are made uncomfortable by advertisements about sexual activities of any kind.

I know the answer. Nobody has to go to the anal sex workshop. It is "inclusive," because anyone can go to it. "Exclusive" means that you are not allowed to go, like a sorority. No matter that no Harvard man has ever wanted to join any sorority. They are exclusive! They are at odds with our deepest values! They are all these terrible things that the anal sex workshop is not. The anal sex workshop is inclusive! The Women's Center is inclusive, because all genders are welcome! Kappa is bad because it excludes men! Don't you get it?

(But, I might object, Humanities 10 and lots of other courses aren't inclusive—students have to apply and many are rejected. Oh, I hear our moral arbiters cry, it's fine for Harvard faculty to pick and choose whom they wish to teach. Anyway, these courses are inclusive—anyone can apply to take them. Why is it so hard for you to understand the plain meaning of the word inclusivity?)

Do we really think that conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews feel fully included in the Harvard of Sex Week?

Again, I do not object to Sex Week. I consider the offense some students take at Sex Week the price they pay for attending a diverse, complicated, culturally rich institution. But I object strongly to the shameless hypocrisy of using exclusivity as a rationale for banning students from single gender organizations, on the basis that what those organizations stand for is offensive and makes some students feel they don't belong here. Those organizations are important to other students, and those who don't like them should learn to ignore them. 

The point in working through this example is that not everyone—in fact, no one—can feel fully comfortable all the time in any institution where different people have different ideas, wants, and needs. It is impossible to achieve ubiquitous belonging in an institution that values learning, that expects students to grow and change. 

It is argued that intellectual discomfort is good, but students should never feel out of place because of their identity. Sex Week exposes the lie in that argument. The discomfort allegedly felt by women who can't get into men's clubs, or the nonexistent men who are turned away from women's clubs—these parallel the discomfort of religiously conservative students who have to live with the Sex Week hoopla. Choosing to make some students feel more comfortable makes others feel less comfortable. It becomes a question of whether to make everyone equally uncomfortable, and if not, which group we choose to offend more. Inclusivity is an abstraction given meaning only by practice. It means whatever we say it means, and the alum's contrasting examples suggest Harvard's definition. 

This discussion should always have been about the bad behavior that sometimes happens at some of the final clubs. To use as an excuse, without any data, a concocted social agenda is (as Steve Pinker so eloquently described) the reason why many Americans don't believe anything we say.

President Faust began the November 7 FAS meeting by describing the dangers to Harvard and to higher education in some of the provisions in the Republican tax plan. She then detailed how many members of Congress she had talked to and how disappointed she was that the plan they were now discussing was unfriendly to universities. 

It is actually not that hard to get out of the bubble even if you spend most of your time in the 02138 zip code. If President Faust really wants to understand why the Republican congress is not sympathetic to us, she should wander around Harvard Yard and talk to students from red states, and ask them what folks back home think of all this. They could explain to her why Harvard looks both sanctimonious and morally bankrupt in the eyes of many ordinary Americans, as much as they aspire to what we stand for at our best.


Postscript. Before the FAS meeting at which my motion was voted down, the president of the student government asked President Faust to inform the Faculty that 61% of Harvard students responding to a survey opposed the sanctions regime. She did not do so. 

Note added November 10: I have corrected the previous sentence by adding the words "responding to a survey." There are things to be said on both sides of the question of whether this was worth reporting. On the con side, the survey was unscientific and may not have represented student sentiment. The question on the survey was about the sanctions, which are a moving target, and not the same as my motion. And this matter, like House randomization, should not be decided by a plebiscite anyway. 

On the pro side of reporting the results to the Faculty is the fact that the president of the student body spoke at the October meeting and told the Faculty that a survey would be conducted and that the results would be available at the November meeting. Also significant is the basic fact that regular order has been completely ignored, from the day the sanctions were announced in a carefully staged pair of letters by the dean and the president during exam period in May 2016. Under FAS legislation, specifically the Dowling legislation, there is a well established set of committees consisting of elected faculty members and elected students, through which business is supposed to flow. This structure has the advantage of being legitimate because it is representative, and it helps the leadership debug their policy ideas before they get implemented or brought to a vote. It is less and less fashionable to use this "regular order," and instead for the dean to appoint faculty and students to a committee crafted to produce a certain  result. The events of the past year show why this is not a time-saver. So even if the survey was unscientific, it was better than nothing, and had it been reported, the Faculty might have had a reason to ask for an explanation. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Motion fails

The FAS rejected my motion, 90-130. Not a bad showing on our side, and Helen Vendler and Ben Friedman were outstandingly eloquent. But it is hard do fight city hall. What was surprising to me was that the speakers on the other side were two deans (Dingman and Khurana) and the co-chair of the Clark-Khurana Committee that reviewed Dean Khurana's proposal. Twenty years ago, faculty mistrust of the administration was significant, and having no independent faculty speaking for your motion would be the kiss of death. But today the Faculty seems to be much happier with letting the administration make the decisions and agreeing to whatever they propose. Not a good sign for what is supposed to be a self-governing body, charged with educational decision-making. The Faculty's view of its role has been diminished.

I may write some more on this, but for the time being, here is what I said.

On behalf of a score of colleagues, I move: Harvard College shall not discipline, 
penalize, or otherwise sanction students for joining, or affiliating with, any lawful organization, political party, or social, political, or other affinity group.

Let me quickly review how we got here, because we’ve talked long enough and it’s time for a vote. Eighteen months ago, during exam period in the spring of 2016, the College announced sanctions against students belonging to certain off-campus organizations. This came as a surprise to everyone, because it had not been voted or even discussed in this Faculty or in any committee of our elected representatives. I made a motion that would have prevented those sanctions from taking effect. It was debated twice, and then the President adjourned last December’s meeting without a vote. A committee was announced to review the policy, and so I respectfully withdrew that motion. Instead the Clark-Khurana committee first proposed much harsher sanctions, and then issued a report with no single recommendation. Through all this time, the rationales for punishing every member of an expanding list of clubs kept shifting, from sexual assault to gender discrimination to exclusivity. Yet the question women students are asking today was never addressed: why are members of women’s groups to be punished at all?

The report stated that the President would choose among the options, even though matters of discipline of students are for this body to decide, not the president or any dean. The president has declined to acknowledge that this matter is within Faculty jurisdiction. I introduced a new version of the motion, and this is its second reading. In the meantime, one puzzling alternative motion was made, and then withdrawn without a vote. Another murky motion is to be offered later today. That motion would, very unwisely, have this Faculty permanently cede its authority to the administration, authority not just over social clubs but in other areas as well.

It has been said that we need to be idealistic, to create the best possible environment for our students. But idealism is not the same as utopianism.  The history of utopian undertakings is not encouraging. Utopias have an official version of social harmony and tend to punish nonconformists. Students come to Harvard not for a social utopia, but for a liberal education in all its tensions and complexity, an education that teaches them how to use the freedom they enjoy, with advice but without coercion.

My motion ensures that students are, like us, entitled to private decisions about what organizations they join. I regret that this matter has taken up so much Faculty time. Let’s debate the motion briefly again and vote, so we can finally know where the Faculty stands.

Madam President, I ask to be recognized again at the appropriate time to request a paper ballot.