Monday, November 27, 2017

The Price

Professor Ben Friedman gave the best speech during the debate on November 7. He observed, among other things, that if we have learned anything over the past year and a half, it is that
the life of the Houses, those jewels of the Harvard structure, is nowhere near as engaging to our students as it should be, and in consequence it is losing out to life in other venues. What have we done in response? An all-too-familiar feature of American business behavior…is that when a firm’s product is losing out in competition, the firm’s response is not to improve its product but to seek to get the regulators to take its competitor’s product off the market. In effect, that’s what we have been doing here. Think of what we might have accomplished—think of what we still might accomplish—if we redirect the time and talent and energy that this faculty has put into this two-year-long discussion…to thinking about how best to re-invigorate life in Houses, rather than simply looking to shut down the alternative that too many of our students now prefer instead.
(The entire Harvard Magazine editorial opinion from which this passage is quoted is very much worth reading.)

Harvard can't seriously think that problems with House life are due to the clubs. Harvard cannot on the one hand credibly claim that off-campus clubs so damage the Houses that students who join them should be disgraced or even expelled, and at the same time build a "campus center" to draw students out of the Houses, and encourage students to take faculty out to lunch at local restaurants under the "Classroom to Table" program. There is something bigger going on with House life than could be cured by shutting down the clubs.

Let's stipulate—even though I don't believe it—that it is Harvard's job to more fully manage students' social lives. (After all, one reason students come to Harvard rather than, say, Bowdoin is because of the greater opportunities to have fun and to do interesting things off campus. I hope the next administration will be less socially oriented and will refocus us instead on academic matters.)

Viewed from a very high altitude, the problem of social life in the Houses has some unacknowledged origins. It is a familiar complaint that social life is bad because the Houses are more crowded than they used to be, and more crowded they surely are. That's unfortunate, but all things considered, I think Harvard has made the right tradeoff in educating a few more students rather than housing a smaller number in more spacious quarters.

The problems of social life in the Houses are more the result of other changes over the years. One is that a college with a 1:1 sex ratio generates more socializing—and thus the need for more social space—than the all-male college for which the Houses (and the old clubs) were designed. The pressure on social space became more intense as roughly the same number of students became 50-50 men and women, and as significant changes occurred over the same decades in the way young American men and women socialize with each other.

Also, while Harvard was assuming from Radcliffe complete social and residential responsibility for women students, it absorbed and renovated the Radcliffe dormitories (in the Quad), but allocated Radcliffe Yard, once the center of academic, social, and administrative life for women undergraduates, almost entirely to graduate education and research. (Only Agassiz Theatre remains an undergraduate building.) Inevitably, that put pressure on other social and administrative spaces for undergraduates. (As has the increasing number of College administrators.)

So Professor Friedman is right. We might have spent the last year talking about the life of the Houses rather than the evils of single-sex clubs. But the waste of time and energy that might have been devoted instead to improving House life is only one, and not the most serious, of the costs of this misadventure. I can think of several others.

The financial costs of the assault on the clubs are likewise not the most serious, but the resulting antipathy of alumni and parents (such as Heather Furnas) can't be welcome. Yet it may not matter. Fundraising numbers are robust. Two nine-figure gifts in the past decade have come from alumni of the professional schools (Gerald Chan and John Paulson), not the College. It may be that, like everything else in American society, alumni influence is tipping toward the top hundredth-of-a-percent of an increasingly financially stratified population. Has Harvard's fundraising model so shifted that the institution can afford to be indifferent to alumni loyalty?

The cost that bothers me most is the personal cost to students, especially women. Women will be the big losers if harsh sanctions are imposed on members of single-sex clubs. When the sanctions were announced under cover of exam-period darkness back in May 2016, did the President or the deans even know how many women belong to such organizations? Nothing was said about women's clubs in the initial announcements. Indeed, by citing sexual assault, those announcements suggested that the moves were meant to help women. In September 2016, the President sounded this half-hearted acknowledgment of the existence of women's clubs:
We need to be sure that we provide women with networking opportunities, with the support they need. We need to figure out the ways to do this. The women’s clubs have grown up because we, as a community, have not done that adequately. And so I don’t think that being this kind of organization — one that was created because something was withheld from you — is the best way to address these women’s needs.
This is the sort of logic that the Letter from 23 Undergraduate Women characterized as "astonishingly patronizing." Women are not joining sororities because the doors of the Porcellian are barred to them. None of the reports and pronouncements over the past year make any attempt to understand the sociology of the sororities and women's final clubs. No evidence has been presented that any of the ugly labels attached during the debates to the male final clubs applies to any of the women's clubs.

The attack on all clubs demonstrates exactly the indiscriminate stereotyping we hope students will avoid in other contexts. The women's clubs operate quietly, and women have their good reasons to join them. They provide something (actually, different things to different students) that those students find useful, supportive, or empowering. There will be a cost if what the clubs provide is taken away, and it is shameful that Harvard trivializes that cost. God save us if our graduates use such uninformed, ideological methods when they go to Washington to craft social policies for the nation.

The governance question, detailed several times by Professor James Engell, was skirted but not settled by the outcome of the November 7 vote. Is the Faculty in charge of the discipline of undergraduates, as the Statutes plainly state? The president refused to say. She recently said that anything that has to be put in the Handbook will be voted by the Faculty, but claims uncertainty about what matters those might be.  At the same time, attempts have been made to confuse "the Faculty" with "faculty," for example by referring to the Clark-Khurana committee as a "faculty committee," even though barely half of its members held even the lowest of faculty ranks.  The Faculty is an allegedly self-governing corporate body, with statutory responsibilities, committees of elected members, and binding formal votes, while "faculty" could refer to anyone with a faculty title whom the administration chooses include in its deliberations. The wording of the Howell motion ("it is the responsibility of the faculty and administration of Harvard College") deceptively blurs this distinction—there is no faculty of Harvard College, and conjoining "the administration" as an equal partner cedes to the administration the statutory authority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Finally, and related to all these concerns, the handling of the sanctions has created mistrust that will not easily be repaired. The source of the mistrust is that a badly conceived plan was promoted on the basis of a preposterous dogma: That single-sex organizations are inherently odious, that the very idea of a single-sex organization should excite the same revulsion as does the Ku Klux Klan. (Somehow while all this was going on, President Faust found time to speak at the inauguration of the new president of Wellesley College.) That lie (which has also corrupted the "inclusivity" initiative) created many inconsistencies and absurdities—for example, that the Women's Center is morally superior to a women's club because men can use it, or that the Black Men's Forum is OK because it isn't a forum for black men. This explains why the rationale kept shifting, though never enough to explain why some harmless organizations had to be killed off along with the dangerous ones.

The assertion of authority by Senior Fellow Bill Lee in a recent Crimson interview tends to confirm what I suspected. This attack on single-gender social organizations started at the Corporation level, as a risk mitigation endeavor. After one Title IX lawsuit, and a long history of bad behavior at certain male final clubs, Harvard's legal governors were worried about the extent of its financial exposure, and so the president and deans took the most aggressive actions against the clubs of any administration since the late 1990s. But their plan of action was couched in moral language rather than the language of safety and risk, and resonated with certain lines of progressive thought.

So even though this all started because some of the clubs posed risks, students were never told to stay away from them, only that students should hate them. Since the lawyers (I am sure) shot down any idea of treating women's clubs differently from men's, or some men's clubs differently from others, the category of offensive organizations kept morphing by expansion, not contraction.

And the administration, having crawled out onto a precarious moral limb to much applause, could not admit that the original motivation was a perfectly reasonable worry about student safety and Harvard's financial exposure. To be sure, the worst behaviors of the worst clubs kept getting cited—in fact, one speaker on November 7 cited a recent hazing death of fraternity pledge at a state university in arguing against my motion. One faculty colleague described this as "emotional blackmail," but I bet it swung a few votes. Sadly, the death of a Harvard undergraduate barely two weeks earlier suggests that loneliness may be a more serious death risk for Harvard students—and as the letter from the 23 women observes, that risk factor seems likely to be increased, not decreased, by shutting down the off-campus clubs.

The night before they were released, a member of the College administration showed me the letters from Dean Khurana and President Faust announcing the sanctions regime. My immediate reaction was, "No one will believe you." That is, no one would believe that the stated reasons for the crackdown were the real ones. Now the Senior Fellow has expanded his unprecedented involvement in the structure of undergraduate life by declaring that the as yet unnamed next president of Harvard will not change the policy that was announced so abruptly and unwisely on May 6, 2016.

This has been a nightmare for Veritas.

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