Wednesday, March 15, 2017

I know it's a dumb question, but

… what does it mean when it says that USGSOs seeking to be recognized are expected to maintain “in both policy and practice … Publication of the demographic breakdown of the organization’s membership”? (2(d) on page 16 of the Report.)

At a minimum, “demographic breakdown” must mean by gender, in which case this is a way of walking back from the promise previously made to the Seneca that it would suffice to change the club’s bylaws without changing its actual membership.

But “demographic breakdown” must mean more than that, or else the demand would simply have been for the gender breakdown.

 It must include ethnic breakdown, since the parallel between gender discrimination and racial discrimination is cited so often. No all-white clubs need apply for recognition. Fair enough.

But that raises an interesting question. There is a Harvard chapter of the Jewish fraternity, A E Pi. I imagine it has a negligible number of Christian members. Suppose it decided to go co-ed and applied for recognition.

Would someone in University Hall check the “demographic breakdown” of the newly reformed A E Pi to make sure there weren’t too many Jewish members? 

Perhaps some descendant of President Lowell could be found for that unsavory job.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More about the Implementation

I hadn’t noticed Section 2 of Appendix H of the Implementation Committee Report until a student asked me about it. This section makes various recommendations about how Harvard space could be repurposed for undergraduate social life. Some of these ideas seem good, but I wonder how much thought has gone into them since they all seem to have problems.

Renew the Queen’s Head Pub. Great idea, but will Harvard really do a third major renovation of this space in barely twenty years? The original, very expensive Loker Commons was overbuilt architecturally, indeterminate socially, and a failure operationally. Then (after some more modest tweaks) the space was turned into a pub—an odd choice for a space close to freshman housing. The Report dismissively says it’s popular mainly with graduate students, as though graduate students are, if anything, overprovisioned and it wouldn’t hurt to give their space to undergraduates. Really? (What happened to One Harvard?) And with the FAS budget under pressure from the costs of renovating the Houses, would it make sense to undertake another renovation of the Memorial Hall basement?

Loeb House as event space. This is a fabulous idea. Loeb House has a beautiful, stately ballroom, often empty but occasionally used, at very high cost, for receptions after funerals. When I was dean I tried to get it for the Ballroom Dance Club and Team (not a hard-partying group). No, was the answer—they would scratch the floor. This is a great proposal, not just because it is a natural use for this space, but because it presents an opportunity for the Corporation (whose offices occupy the building) to address in deed as well as in word the problem of undergraduate social life.

The Smith Campus center.  Couldn’t this have been thought through just a few years ago when the Center was being planned? Or shall we embark on an immediate renovation to make it an “Agora” for undergraduates, to use the Report’s term, instead of whatever it is actually going to be?

Phillips Brooks House. A seductive idea which is never going to happen. First, it would surprise me greatly if the public service groups went along with it. But more importantly, that building has not just a history but a deed of gift. It was built thanks to a gift from the Randall Charities Corporation. As the 1896-97 Harvard President’s Report states, the gift was applied “to the construction of the Phillips Brooks House to insure in that building suitable accommodations for the charitable work of the organization known as the Student Volunteer Committee so long as the said organization retain the approval of the President and Fellows, or in case this work should be given up, for kindred work at the discretion of said President and Fellows ….” IANAL, but I wonder if this idea was checked out before it was put in the Report.

SOCH as party central. That is Hilles Library, for earlier generations of readers. Might work great for students in the Quad. It’s never worked as planned as the complex for student offices and extracurricular clubs since it was decommissioned as a library. (Was that even a good idea, in retrospect?)

Transition administrative offices into student space. Send offices like the Office of International Education and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships from their “impressive frame wood houses on Dunster Street” to somewhere less central. Repurpose these buildings as “a quasi-student union, with accessible study and hang-out spaces during the day and bookable space for student organizations and perhaps the dining societies to book for meetings and social gatherings in the evenings and/or on weekends.” This seems at odds with what we have heard at other times about the need to restore the centrality of the academic experience. It seems a little odd in particular to send fellowship applicants, who would have sworn not to be members of the nearby final clubs, off to some more distant location for conversations about fellowships, so that the fellowships office building could be used as a Harvard-banded club.

These are all details, of course. The biggest question, the one about the policy itself that lay behind the motion I made about nine months ago and then withdrew after the new committee was promised, remains on the table, awaiting the work of that committee.

But another big question remains after reading the Implementation Committee report in full. One of the complaints about off-campus social clubs has always been that they draw social life out of the Houses. Making them go co-ed would do nothing to change that, or to make them less exclusive, or elitist. (Vide The Hasty Pudding Club— the social club, not the Theatricals.) Won’t all these efforts to create social space outside the Houses compete with House social life rather than enhance it? The other two sections of Appendix H describe House-based activities. Does the whole picture really hold together—better social life in the Houses, and also better social life on campus outside the Houses?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Professor Haig's motion against compelled oaths

This is a guest post by Professor David Haig of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

At the meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of November 1, 2016 I spoke in favor of the Lewis motion in these words.

“There is good will on both sides of this debate. I have three concerns about the current policy.
First is the issue of consistency. If we sanction students for membership in groups of which we disapprove, we can less credibly defend the rights of students to belong to groups of which we approve but are disapproved of by others in authority in other times and other places.
Second is the issue of guilt by association and collective punishment. Racial and religious profiling are commonly justified by statistical associations with crime. Are we justified in sanctioning all members of female-only and male-only groups because of statistical associations and the criminal behaviors of some members of some groups?
Third is the issue of student autonomy. All our students are members of the College community whether or not we approve of their choices or opinions. If we believe in the transformative power of a liberal arts education, and desire the intellectual, social, and personal transformation of our students, then our desire should be to achieve these ends by intellectual argument to transform their hearts and their minds. The current policy attempts to coerce the choices of students, by changing their self interest, without a fundamental change in their values. We risk changing the choice without changing the chooser.”

The second of these concerns referred to a common claim at the time that the policy of sanctioning members of ‘unrecognized single-gender social organizations’ was directed at the problem of sexual assault on campus. We now hear less of this justification for the sanctions policy. I consider my first and third points to be my principal objections to the policy, particularly the third. The phrases ‘transformative power of a liberal arts education’ and ‘intellectual, social, and personal transformation’ come from the mission statement of Harvard College as frequently articulated by Dean Rakesh Khurana. My use of his words was an attempt to speak to him directly, to beseech him consider that he might be mistaken.

One of my unspoken concerns was the question of how the policy would be implemented. My fear of ‘mission creep’ has been fully justified by the report of the Implementation Committee that has been accepted by Dean Khurana. The laudable aim of gender-inclusivity has metamorphosed into a proposal that students seeking certain awards or offices are required to affirm that they are in compliance with “the College’s policy regarding the principle of non-discrimination, particularly with regard to membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations.” What happens if a student refuses to take this affirmation on the principle that they are opposed to such oaths? Would they be in contempt of the College’s policy and thereby ineligible for the aforementioned awards and offices? What happens if a student cannot in conscience affirm they are in compliance with the College’s policy because the student sincerely believes in a different principle of non-discrimination? Where is the space for dissent? Who determines the policy and what are the mechanisms of revision? Are there constraints on unilateral changes (by self-appointed arbiters of student virtue) of the policy to be affirmed?

I consider the requirement for such an affirmation to be a dangerous precedent. What if some future government declared particular kinds of organizations illegal and demanded oaths of non-membership from all college students. The faculty would be on firmer ground to resist such demands if it did not require similar oaths from our students. For these reasons, I have presented a motion to the Faculty that

“This faculty does not approve of Harvard College requiring a student to make an oath, pledge or affirmation about whether the student belongs to a particular organization or category of organizations.”

The motion is deliberately worded as disapprobation of oaths rather than prohibition of oaths because I did not want the motion to be complicated by the disputed question of whether the faculty or the administration has ultimate jurisdiction in this matter. In a similar vein, the motion does not address the disputed sanctions policy itself but rather its implementation in the requirement for an affirmation. It might also be argued that the motion is premature and should be postponed until after the recently announced committee of review makes its recommendations. I believe that that committee would benefit from knowing the sense of the faculty on the question of affirmations before making its recommendations.