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. 


7 comments:

  1. A very enlightened and intellectual view of the hypocrisy of the Harvard faculty and administration. Shame on President Faust for failing to tell the Faculty that a majority of the students opposed sanctions. Thank you Dean Lewis for posting this. Mary Sykes, former Harvard parent

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  3. It would be interesting to know how many real Harvard faculty as opposed to deanlets with voting rights voted against the motion. My impression was that dozens of administrators were present, more than enough to change the final result. To claim that the vote against the motion was a vote of the Harvard faculty is a fraudulent claim until we know the answer to that question.

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    1. Agreed. There are 738 ladder faculty and 882 voting members, a difference of 144. Some of those are Senior Lecturers, Senior Preceptors, Professors of the Practice, and Professors in Residence. But it looks like there must be close to 100 administrators who have the franchise and whose teaching rank, if any, is lecturer or below.

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  4. As you rightly note, there are many identities that don't always mesh - not just gender. If we reduce things to absurdity, why are female and male only singing groups permitted? What about sports teams? I could be wrong, but I suspect the ban on single sex social clubs has more to do with dismantling male social institutions than inclusiveness.

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  5. On what basis do you assert that there are no Harvard men who would want to join a club of Harvard women (while acknowledging that indeed there were women who attempted to join a previously all-male final club as preliminary members)? Do you have data, or simply a belief that female organizations are less desirable than their parallel male counterparts, and therefore can't be desirable to join?

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    1. He didn't say there were no Harvard men who wish to join an all-female club, he said there were no Harvard men who wish to join a sorority. He also doesn't say a sorority *couldn't* be desirable for men to join, just that at present they are not. (However, this does seem unlikely to change.)

      Since it seems somewhat obvious that men don't want to belong to sororities, I doubt there has been any study to validate the claim; thus the claim is likely based on an offhand belief.

      Are you aware of even an anecdotal case of a single male Harvard student claiming he wishes he could join a sorority?

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