Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lifecycle of a Moral Panic

The matter of single-gender social organizations has followed a familiar American pattern. At the beginning, a genuine problem is identified; the responses to it are insufficiently effective; a moral panic erupts, inflamed by larger societal forces; the authorities make a muscular response, which infringes personal freedom; those concerned about the loss of freedom protest cautiously if at all, out of fear of seeming to give comfort to the enemy; and the matter ends with a course correction, perhaps under judicial order in cases where civil rights are at stake, and perhaps only years after the precipitating events.

The immigration and terrorism panics from the current presidential campaign—walls to solve the problem of Mexican rapists, immigration bans to solve the problem of terrorist bombings—fit the old pattern. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Tipper Gore’s campaign to label dirty song lyrics show that the same pattern can stretch over issues grave and trivial.  The Internet has spawned a whole series of moral panics—we tell the story of the rise and fall of the Display Provision of the Communications Decency Act in chapter 7 of Blown to Bits.

Typically, the infringement of personal freedom is at first not acknowledged by the authorities, and is dismissed when raised by others. “It’s only a small dent in anybody’s rights, if it has anything to do with rights at all,” goes the argument. “These circumstances are absolutely unique and so this action could never set a precedent for anything else. And the small price is worth paying, given the magnitude of the problem and the importance of addressing it.” This logic leads to exaggeration in both directions, minimizing the threat to personal freedom and overstating the effectiveness of the reaction. The muscular response generally looks overblown once the moral panic subsides—until it is cited as a precedent during a later moral panic. Even the appalling Japanese-American internment has recently been cited favorably.

From a distance—and sometimes from close up, in the eyes of calmer souls—the response to a panic may look very different. As President Pusey said at the time McCarthy was going after Harvard professors for being communists, “Someday I am sure that we shall all look back on the hateful irrationality of the present with incredulity.”

The lifecycle pattern is understandable in political environments; people are often ready to sacrifice freedoms in times of fear, when rational discourse is most difficult. But academic institutions are devoted to the rule of reason and to teaching students how to solve problems rationally, with an eye to historical moments when panic trumped reason. For the pattern to play out at a great university sets a poor model for those we are educating.

The single-gender policy started with a genuine problem: Some of the final clubs are sketchy places, and bad things that happen at Harvard too often have final clubs in the narrative. My memory of Ad Board cases from twenty years ago is that the names of the same two or three clubs kept appearing in case reports—we started drinking at the X club and then went to his room, he got drunk at X club and punched me, somebody threw rocks from the roof of X club, and so on. I have no trouble believing that the reports continue and may be more frequent, reliable, and serious, as reporting of sexual assaults has increased. This is what I meant in my original letter to Dean Khurana when I referred to some of the clubs as “toxic.”

Various attempts to combat the problem have failed, or were effective only briefly. One tactic I tried that was surprisingly ineffective was to scare the grad board members, who might well be personally liable for damages if crimes or injuries occurred at their clubs. My successor went the other way—he tried to make nice with the final clubs. They reciprocated by inviting him to breakfast and serving a dish that was a word-play on his name. That approach did not work very well either.

Then a moral panic set in as college sexual assault, quite properly, gained national visibility. Whatever one thinks of the relevance of Title IX or of the preponderance-of-evidence standard, there is little doubt that the University has gotten much more aggressive about sexual assault prevention since the feds took an interest in Harvard’s response to complaints—and since litigation has been threatened against the university.

And so Harvard has offered a muscular response, of which the new policy is a part. Oddly, in the interest of inclusivity, the policy would divide the student body into two classes. The virtuous, who are not members of single-gender social organizations, would be eligible to be team captains, Rhodes nominees, and so on. The deplorables, who do join such organizations, would not be eligible for such honors. The response brings cheers because finally someone is being tough. The fact that the response may do little to solve the original problem, and would infringe rights of free association that Harvard has long honored, gets lost in the self-congratulations.

The Sexual Assault Task Force report is a good document, and, in my opinion, correctly (if rather too sweepingly) identifies the final clubs as problematic. Neither the report nor the statistical evidence it cites supports forcing them to go co-ed, or discouraging men from joining, as effective responses to the problem of sexual assault. Indeed, if a club has a reputation for being an unsafe place for women, one might question Harvard’s wisdom in encouraging women to join.

What to do, if the new policy isn’t the right approach? Harvard could start by aggressively educating students about any unsafe places it has identified—clubs, parks, or dark alleys near Harvard Yard. Training on how to party safely, not just at the final clubs but anywhere, would be another targeted response—drink in moderation if at all, and never from a punch bowl; take a buddy with you and never leave without her, etc. Improved social spaces are often cited as a necessary response, and who could argue against that on this crowded campus? But Harvard social spaces, which will inevitably be regulated, will never compete against spaces off campus where the drinking age is ignored. Calling in the police when the final club parties disturb the peace might level the playing field of social attractiveness between Harvard and non-Harvard spaces.

In responding to this moral panic, the very definition of the problem morphed into one of broad social “exclusivity” and even “privilege.” Those may be problems, but they are not problems for which any evidence has been presented, so it is hard to judge the response. How odd to hear the Harvard leadership brandishing a stereotype in the interest of promoting diversity and inclusivity! Nor would any problem of privileged exclusivity of the final clubs be fixed by forcing them to go co-ed. If in fact Harvard knows that the membership of the clubs is largely drawn from some hereditary elite, then having the daughters of those families join their sons in the clubs is a laughable blow against privilege. To suggest that simply being single-gender makes the clubs dens of “exclusivity” and “privilege” is to play a word game. By that standard, the Anglican monastery on Memorial Drive is “exclusive.”

And I have never heard anyone refer to the fraternities and sororities as socially exclusive. In fact, my guess is that the members of those organizations, which never used to exist at Harvard, are disproportionally the students who might have attended their state universities had they not come to Harvard. I would speculate that the rise of fraternities and sororities is a side effect of the democratization of Harvard College—its evolution from a largely bicoastal, high-income, urban institution into one much more representative of America.

Students tend to bring to Harvard the clubs and hobbies that they had in high school or that their high school friends are enjoying at universities near home. I have joked, but it may well be true, that fraternities and sororities grew in popularity among Harvard students around the same time that we began seeing a baton twirler at halftime of Harvard football games. These were not part of old Harvard because old Harvard was not representative of America. The reason these allegedly exclusive organizations exist is because Harvard is more inclusive than it has ever been. I don’t love the baton twirling or the sororities either, but that doesn’t matter. Harvard is large, and contains multitudes.

So when President Faust said in her video about the final clubs, “The whole situation could be resolved in a minute if these clubs admitted women,” I wonder which “situation” she was referring to. Not the problem of sexual assault. Not the problem, whatever it is, of off-campus sororities and fraternities. Not the problem of “privilege” or “exclusivity.” Only the problem, perhaps, of widespread unhappiness with the policy itself.


President Faust had an op-ed in the Crimson on September 21, Claiming Full Citizenship. It’s a good account of the history, and I’m glad she points the finger at Radcliffe College as an institution which in its latter days did more to hold back than to advance the equality of women undergraduates. However, the article transitions in an abrupt and puzzling way to justifying the new policy on single-gender social organizations. Just when did the Kappa Kappa Gamma, or the Porcellian Club for that matter, become one of the “opportunities central to Harvard undergraduate life,” and thereby fall under Harvard control?

Much less under presidential control. The op-ed has three “I want”s in the last two paragraphs. These seem to be intended to justify the “We created a policy” that is used in the Atlantic video. This is constitutionally simply wrong—the Statutes are clear that the College is in the “immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” not of the President. That is why the Faculty annually votes all the rules and regulations for the College, and specifically approves any changes.

But quite aside from the statutory questions are the deeper questions about the role of the institution in the private lives of its students. There may be many things that the president, or indeed the Faculty, “wants” of Harvard students. We have historically exercised humility in deciding which of those institutional “wants” were appropriate to demand. How did it come to pass that what the president wants can become the law of the land for students who wish to be first-class Harvard citizens?

In particular, I wonder: If, as the president states, the correct response to Harvard students joining single-gender social organizations is to make them second-class Harvard citizens, was the Verba committee wrong? At the time when President Faust, with great dignity, upheld the FAS policy against discriminatory organizations and barred ROTC from Harvard, should Harvard have imposed on ROTC students some loss of privilege in the interest of greater inclusivity? Does the president think that what the Verba committee considered too patronizing on Harvard’s part is today no longer patronizing at all? Or is it now OK for Harvard to be patronize—some might say infantilize—its students, by limiting their freedom to choose which off-campus activities they may honorably join?


  1. Kudos to Harry Lewis for providing a more complete analysis of the single gender problem from his many years of active involvement on the faculty.

    It is time for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to regain control of the rules for student conduct on a fair and equitable solution which applies to all organization including fraternities and sororities.

  2. The law of unintended consequence is about to have one of its finer days. What then is the final result in its full entitlement of this new policy? Will the Final Clubs fold up their tents/sell their buildings, admit their shame and perfidy and cease to exist? Will 150+ years of The Porcellian end with them saying, "Gosh, gee, golly Mr. Khurana, you're right, we're wrong, let's just end a club older than any of the river houses and cease a tradition that pre-dates the Civil War....boy are we ashamed of ourselves." I would suggest not.

    Rather, if Mr. Khurana and Dean Faust had exactly the outcome they have repeatedly stated is their goal this is what actually, in actual reality will and must happen - the only actual, in actual reality outcome.

    First, the Final Clubs will not cease, they will admit women. Some willingly and enthusiastically, some reluctantly and maybe one or two will remain single sex and suffer the consequence. But let's assume a best case - they will all go co-ed. What then is the result? The buildings are not any larger, the dining rooms are not any more spacious. They CANNOT double in size. No...they will admit somewhat more total people and over time the gender split will be fifty-fifty. Let's say they go from an average of 45 members to 60. Instead of 45 men being admitted to this exclusive, elitist institution, there will be 30. The clubs will have become MORE exclusive and elitist, not less. Yes, they will be admitting 30 women each, who will join their snobbish male bretheren and the clubs will have become more elitist, more exclusionary with fewer men admitted.

    The Bee Club, the only female Final Club, may also go co-ed, resulting in the emergence of one MORE Final Club. So, less male members, more exclusionary and one more Final Club - a net increase in exclusiveness and elitism - hardly the unstated goal of the policy which is for them to just die, dry up and blow away.

    But that's what will actually, in actual reality happen.

    At the same time, the sororities which have over 1,000 female members and are the single most popular social group for women, will cease to exist. They are chapters of national organizations and CANNOT admit men. They literally have no choice but to shut down. Sororities are NOT exclusionary - they are committed to having an offer to every applicant who wishes to join. Sororities do NOT have alcohol issues - alcohol is NOT permitted on the premises. Sororities do NOT throw parties, there is no party issue. They are not sex orientation discriminatory - the chapter president of at least one sorority is a Lesbian leader of her class. The new policy is inherently sexist as it is intended primarily to disadvantage women - the only conclusion that can be drawn from a policy that if it succeeds ends up only affecting women.

    A more elitist and exclusionary club system, a gigantic reduction in social opportunities for women, the growth of the club system for the first time in 100 years....congratulations Deans, you are officially idiots.

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    1. Sound article, also provides a good critical reading of President Faust's recent op-ed in the Crimson.

      However, for this statement: "In fact, my guess is that the members of those organizations, which never used to exist at Harvard, are disproportionally the students who might have attended their state universities had they not come to Harvard. "

      ^ What leads to this guess?

    2. Extrapolation from conversations with students I know and what they tell me. Not a good data set of course. At least I acknowledge that I am guessing! I have heard many statements in recent weeks stereotyping final club members in ways that are unsupported by any data that I know of, but are asserted with full confidence nonetheless as things "everybody knows." And then followed by the completely unwarranted suggestion that killing off the sororities and fraternities would therefore improve inclusivity and break down hereditary privilege here.

    3. Yes, I was talking to some friends earlier this month and there seems to be this notion that fraternities and sororities got painted by the same brush because it's probably harder to create policies against just the final clubs. So the administration went ahead and created a policy against all single-gender clubs.

      However, single gender sports teams don't suffer the same treatment even though there are enough examples of [set of N members] being part of [some sports team] AND [some single-gender club], at which point one might point to the latter as an extension of the former in some cases.
      Rhodes applications favor those who are a part of a sports team but not those who are part of a single-gender club.

      Even setting aside the "freedom of association" argument, selectively targeting just the clubs seems to overlook such nuances.

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