Monday, July 17, 2017

Further comments on the social club policy

FAS has set up a website for faculty to post comments about the policy. (Actually, the report, which links to the site, says "faculty and students," but students tell me they can't log into it.) Here is the comment I just posted there.

---------------

This drastic recommendation is the product of anecdote and generalization, rather than data and analysis. The anecdotes are largely about men’s clubs, and though the report doesn’t mention it, most of the students affected by the policy would be women. Rather than targeting the malefactors and placing them in statistical context, the report uses dramatic stories to justify moves against clubs that have done nothing wrong. It is as though an attack by somebody’s Rottweiler was justification enough for taking away other people’s service dogs, St. Bernards, and poodles.

The use of “exclusivity” to consign all the women’s clubs to the same fate as the most drunken of the men’s final clubs seems almost certainly designed to meet the President’s condition of not inviting a lawsuit—which recent Crimson reporting suggests may happen anyway. Women members will testify that these organizations have grown for reasons that have nothing to do with the drunken parties that happen at some male final clubs; alumnae have told me that the support they received from other members was not just enjoyable, but essential to their success at Harvard. The report offers no evidence that getting into one of the women’s organizations is particularly competitive, relative to the psychic rewards of membership (it is probably less stressful than repeatedly being “lotteried by application” out of limited-enrollment FAS courses). The report’s vague call for “increased efforts to foster other social opportunities for students” sounds a good deal like a recommendation to “repeal now and replace later.” Of course, the argument that women’s organizations are “discriminatory” is irrefutable—but also entirely abstract: no evidence is offered that men have ever wanted to join them.

But these are practical details. Even if we were to conclude that the clubs “should” not exist, and that our students and alumnae are exaggerating their importance, the whole idea of punishing students for joining private, off-campus organizations—for peaceably assembling, as the Bill of Rights puts it—is deeply wrong.

It is true that the rights enumerated in the First Amendment are dangerous to established order. As Americans, we can ridicule our president, and can gather peaceably together in groups that cause the authorities to suspect that we are up to no good. It took supreme confidence on the part of the Founders to build into the Constitution the assurance that the government would not interfere with these activities. It might watch us closely and stand ready to respond when we break a law, but Congress could not make the speech or assembly itself unlawful. The reason these things are allowed, even when they are considered obnoxious or worse by prevailing social standards, is that the Founders understood that society is not static, and they had confidence that an enlightened if not always harmonious society will in the long run be better off, that social progress will occur, if people are allowed to speak and assemble peaceably even for reasons the authorities find offensive.

Harvard is a private institution and is under no legal obligation to follow the principles that apply right outside Harvard Yard. On the other hand, we should consider ourselves to be, if anything, more enlightened than the average place in America, more capable of governance through the rule of reason. This absolute ban—modeled on a policy for rural institutions where fraternities were residential and the entire social structure was drastically different—projects a lack of confidence that students should be allowed the same freedoms that the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. It is as though we don’t think that appeals to facts and reason will work with our students, and therefore there is no other way to proceed except by making a rule and then enforcing it with discipline. Yes, something must be done, but it is simply not true that everything else has been tried. For example, as I testified to the committee, the College has never tried (that I am aware) even the simplest of campaigns: to tell students not to join or go to the worst of the clubs, and why, and to explain the same forcefully to the parents of incoming freshmen. My own freshman advisees last year, who entered the College when it was at peak alarm about the ills of USGSOs, reported that no one had said a word to them about this subject in any orientation, proctor meeting, or written communication.

We are an educational institution. We teach students in everything we do. If we can teach students to guard themselves against infectious diseases without quarantining them, we can get them to stay away from those clubs where we have good reasons to think they should not go. Let’s give our students, and ourselves, more credit than to say that the only possible response is an outright ban, which to be effective would have to be enforced by some system of tips from informants, surveillance of off-campus restaurants where suspiciously regular dinner meetings might be taking place, and Ad Board punishments.

To proudly adopt a ban would be to teach by example that when a national leader attacks the free press or peaceful protests, he may be responding quite appropriately to the irksome downsides of citizens’ exercise of their civil liberties. Just because the rest of the world is finding authoritarianism more congenial than personal freedom, that doesn’t mean Harvard has to follow suit.



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The new policy about social clubs

The report of the committee chaired by Professor Clark and Dean Khurana has now been posted. Harvard Magazine has a good summary, including a link to the report: Harvard Committee Recommends Banning Clubs. The Boston Globe also has a story, in which I am quoted: Harvard panel recommends barring students from final clubs. Here is the full text of what I sent the reporter:
The recommendation manages to put Harvard in a position that combines arrogance with insecurity. The University would suspend ordinary freedom of association rights so that Harvard can pick which off-campus clubs students can join. And at the same time the report displays a lack of confidence in Harvard's mission to educate students to make choices for themselves. Instead Harvard would do the easy thing: make a law and punish the nonconformists. This is not the way to prepare the citizens of a free society. 
It contains one particularly significant sentence: “The President will make the final decision.” So we have a committee, hand-picked by the dean, declaring that the matter is not under Faculty jurisdiction. I don’t know how the Faculty will react to the policy itself — I would like to think they would not support it — but I would be very surprised if they would agree that this matter is not within their authority to decide.
There is a great deal more to be said about this. The same rhetorical devices are being used as in the past: Some clubs are bad, so we must ban all clubs. We'll have to figure out later how to replace the positive roles some clubs play in the lives of some students, once we have killed them off. No data (read Professor Haig's minority opinion at the end). No acknowledgment that most of the groups and students affected are not the final clubs and their members.

I think the most interesting question may prove to be the constitutional issue suggested in the second part of my statement to the Globe. The report assigns responsibility for enforcing the policy to the Administrative Board. The Administrative Board administers the policies for undergraduate affairs adopted by the Faculty, which draws its authority over undergraduate affairs from the Fifth and Twelfth Statutes. The report says that no special oaths will be needed because the policy will be incorporated into the Handbook. But nothing gets incorporated into the Handbook by presidential fiat. The Faculty votes the Handbook every year, and votes major changes to it individually before the Handbook as a whole gets voted at the end of the academic year. It simply makes no sense to say that the President will decide this and then it will go into the Handbook, unless the fundamental principle of faculty governance over undergraduate affairs has been altered in the Statutes. "The President will decide" and "it will go in the Handbook and be enforced by the Administrative Board, whether the Faculty like it or not" are inconsistent statements, unless the Statutes have changed.