Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Not discipline"

It should not be a surprise that after a year and a half, Harvard has wound up where it started during Exam Period of 2016: Students who are members of unrecognized single gender social organizations (USGSOs) will be barred from receiving certain distinctions, including team captaincies and fellowship nominations. Does the phrase "leadership positions supported by institutional resources" include the presidency of the Crimson and of the student body? These are the closest analogs that exist in student society to central institutions of the American democracy, and it is hard to see why, under the new regime, Harvard would leave these elected positions up to the whims of the voters. It will be interesting to see that detail, given that the Crimson is editorially in favor of the sanctions. Perhaps it will announce a policy of self-policing, if the College chooses to exempt it.

It is worth saying a word about team captaincies, which have been little discussed, perhaps because faculty know and care less about sports than about Rhodes scholarships. Institutional interference in captain elections marks the end of a long struggle, detailed in Ronald Smith's Sports and Freedom. College sports began as a form of adolescent escape from institutional control, and over the decades, as institutional control of student life has relaxed until recently, institutional control over athletics has become nearly complete. The selection of team captains was, until May 2016, the last, tiny bit of unregulated turf where the students representing the institution were free to make their decisions for themselves. No more, at Harvard anyway (and Harvard is where all this started).

The crucial, lawyerly words in the announcement by President Faust and William Lee (Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation) are "not discipline":
The policy does not discipline or punish the students; it instead recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus. 
An otherwise estimable student who is sent away from the Fellowships office upon disclosing her membership in some women's club might be forgiven for thinking she has been punished. But at Harvard it seems, a word means what the President and the Senior Fellow choose it to mean, neither more nor less. By declaring that ineligibility for honors and distinctions are "not discipline," what President Faust and Mr. Lee are saying is that the Statutes are not implicated, the matter is not one for the Faculty to decide, and no Faculty vote is needed to carry out the policy. A recent Crimson story suggests that the College is debating whether it really wants to press its luck with the Faculty by keeping this matter out of the Handbook for Students.

The Twelfth Statute states, in part, "The several faculties have authority … to inflict, at their discretion, all proper means of discipline …." And, if there were any doubt, the Fifth Statute states in part, "Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are together in immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences," and "Each faculty includes in its membership all the professors, associate professors and assistant professors who teach in the department or departments under the charge of that faculty." The Fifth Statute goes on to stipulate a specific exception to the authority of the Faculty: violations of the Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities, which may be handled directly by the dean of a Faculty. By its specificity, this clause underscores the exclusive disciplinary authority of the Faculty on other matters of discipline.

So it is important that the USGSO policy not be discipline, because if it were discipline, and disciplinary action were taken against a student without a Faculty vote authorizing that policy, that student could challenge the action as not properly authorized.  A private institution can do almost anything to its students except fail to follow its own rules, and Harvard's rules are that the Faculty is in charge of discipline.

The Corporation's decision to insert itself into student life policy-making marks a change of incalculable significance. Their hand has been strengthened by the Faculty's decision not to affirm its own authority by passing my motion, and by the Faculty Council's almost unanimous support of weird motions by Professors Allen and Howell which were both withdrawn before their sponsors were forced to explain what they actually meant. As it turns out, according to the Lee-Faust proclamation, instead of deciding on policy, the Faculty is reduced to monitoring an allegedly non-disciplinary student life policy voted by the Corporation. Once so diminished, it is unlikely the Faculty will ever reclaim its statutory authority.

We are back to where we began, with a values test, a litmus test for determining whether students "exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity." And along with that, we are back to all the old contradictions and inconsistencies in that litmus test. Why is a student in a multi-ethnic, socioeconomically cross-cutting women's group less exemplary than a member of the Asian American Sisters, or the tenured faculty of the Mathematics Department, both of which are de facto less ethnically diverse single-gender organizations? Why does a student become more exemplary by quitting an ethnically diverse Harvard sorority and joining an ethnically homogeneous sorority with members from MIT?

The answer is that the whole exercise has not been about increasing inclusivity but about getting rid of the final clubs, in a way that will not invite a lawsuit. The policy may well not achieve either end. But it would crush a variety of ethnically and even socioeconomically diverse private organizations on the basis that they are not gender-diverse—ignoring the fact that gender and ethnicity are not equivalent qualities. If they were parallel, Harvard would prohibit single-gender rooming groups.

As I have said before, women will be the big losers from this Corporation decision. The news that the sororities plan to ignore the sanctions and proceed with their recruitment should be taken to mean that these groups provide something that is important enough that women are willing to pay a price for getting it. The clause in the Lee-Faust letter about these groups is transparently reprehensible:
We also recognize the concerns expressed by women students about the deficiencies in the campus social environment that have led many to seek membership in sororities. The College is committed to continuing the necessary work of addressing these issues in ways consistent with our broader educational mission.
Note the artful misrepresentation of what the women's groups provide. The letter from the 23 women does not refer to "deficiencies in the social environment," a phrase that suggests room for parties or casual conversation from which men should not be excluded. What these groups are providing is far more consequential—support, mentorship, and empowerment. It is insulting to dismiss these women's concerns as something the College is vaguely "committed … to addressing" while putting the sanctions into effect immediately.

There is a real problem with certain clubs, but it's never been identified and the sanctions regime won't solve it. The sweeping generalizations, the misuse of the worst of transgressions of the worst of the final clubs as arguments for shutting down all the women's clubs—these are not only illiberal but intellectually embarrassing. Alums old and young seem to be awakening to the fact that the nannying has gone too far.


  1. I noticed the "not discipline or punish" phrase in the note, and thought it was odd they would say that. You don't have to go to Harvard to see it's obviously false. Now I see this contortion of semantics is a CYA move by the Corporation since they didn't follow proper procedures going through the Faculty.

    I'm very unhappy with how the administration has handled the situation the last couple years and have stopped donating. I feel indebted to Harvard for the extremely generous financial aid that allowed me to get a world-class education, but I don't want my money going to an organization that doesn't share my values. I hope Harvard will reevaluate these policies, and address social life and sexual assault issues through more constructive means than infringing on students' off-campus lives.

    1. Adding to the thought above, what really upsets me about this "does not discipline or punish the students" phrasing is the example it sets. Harvard is full of future leaders, and it's part of Harvard's responsibility to set an example of integrity in leadership. When Harvard leadership dodges policies by fudging its words, they are normalizing this behavior in front of all the students at the university.

      This is not what good leadership looks like. Good leadership means building consensus, and complying with the spirit of policy and law--not playing games with semantics to get results you want.

      I can only hope students will realize the lack of integrity throughout this process is NOT normal and is not how good leaders behave.

  2. I want to thank you for these posts that you've been making. It's nice to read someone who feels the same way I do, but can articulate it so much more eloquently.

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