Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My remarks to the faculty in support of the nondiscrimination motion

Madam President: On behalf of several members of this body, I move that Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal.

This motion stands on its own as a statement of principle that we, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, have long honored in practice. As our posted argument notes, when this Faculty considered how to respond to the dilemma posed by ROTC’s discriminatory membership practices coupled with Harvard students’ desire to join as cadets, a faculty committee recommended that we cut off support to ROTC. But the same committee considered and explicitly rejected as “excessively paternalistic” the option of punishing students who chose to join MIT ROTC. The FAQ we distributed cites other historical precedents for the simple proposition that Harvard should not discriminate against members of this community on the basis of their private decisions about organizational memberships.

This motion is proposed in response to an unprecedented decision to limit opportunities for students who choose to join certain sororities, certain fraternities, and the so-called final clubs, female or male. (Not all clubs are affected by the policy, as I understand it. To fall beyond the reach of the policy it suffices to have a member of the other gender or a member from another college. So for example, it is fine under the policy to be a member of a sorority, even one that is exclusive on the basis of ethnicity as well as gender, as long as it includes MIT students as members.)

This is not the right place to discuss the nature and extent of the problems presented by single-gender organizations of Harvard students. I want to stress that the signatories to the motion are not defending any or all of these organizations. Nor are we denying the problems they create. Nor are we against change! About all that the twelve of us probably agree on is that Harvard should avoid making rules restricting students’ civil liberties—of speech, of religion, or of association. For example, the FAS would not sanction students for book purchases they might make at the Harvard Coop or the Harvard Book store, even if we feared that reading those books posed a grave moral hazard to the students or to the community. We would, I hope, not discriminate against students for adhering to a religion that gives women second-class status. In the same way, Harvard should honor students’ individual right to free association, and that is what our motion states.

It has been argued that the policy does not actually ban students from joining these organizations. Harvard is simply subjecting the offending students, goes the reasoning, to the loss of certain opportunities. But the College is creating a blacklist, an index of prohibited organizations, to use a canon law metaphor. Join one of the heretical clubs and you can remain a Harvard student, but there are certain blessings Harvard won’t bestow. Only the worthies, the students who have shown their fealty to Harvard by not joining the prohibited clubs, can be team captains or heads of student organizations, or get Harvard’s endorsement for a Rhodes Scholarship.

This automatic exclusion from an opportunity is really rather bizarre, if you think about what it would mean. For example, the College might interfere with the leadership elections of students in a political organization. An implementation committee is already hammering out the details of how this would all work, but the problem is not in the details—the problem was creating the blacklist in the first place.

I have heard it argued that reforming the all-male final clubs is so important that it justifies this infringement of civil liberties. These clubs aren’t truly private organizations, goes the argument, because they consist solely of Harvard students. And nobody needs them anyway. So given the importance of the objective, it is OK for Harvard to impose its standards on the private choices of students.

We have heard this line of argument before, twice in the past few years, when Harvard has infringed personal liberties of members of this community in service of goals it considered more important. This was the defense when Harvard read faculty email without notifying them, in search of the source of a leak to the Crimson. This was also the defense when Harvard photographed students in the classroom without informing them, because the data would be important to educational research. In each case, the argument went, the infringement was minor, no one suffered any harm, and the goal was important. Both times, Harvard eventually stepped back from this line of defense. Now once again, Harvard is showing an ethical blind spot in arguing that its high-minded ends justify means that would not be tolerated in civil society.

This policy is disappointing both for the dangerous precedent it sets, and for the irregular way it was enacted, by administrative fiat after the last faculty meeting of the year this past spring. Others who will speak after me plan to address these matters, but I must note here that a memo distributed for this meeting mischaracterizes our concerns and incorrectly implies that they have been addressed. We were given no opportunity to review that memo, and it misstates our views. We did not think that the scope of the policy needed to be made clearer. Our concern is that having enacted a college policy of this importance without consulting this body or its elected representatives, the dean and the president would at a later date be empowered to enact other policies, about this matter or others that properly lie within the jurisdiction of this body.

For my own part, my most serious objection to this policy is neither precedent nor process. My deepest concern is educational. The policy teaches our students, who watch everything we do, bad lessons. It is illiberal—it teaches students that it is OK to sacrifice basic individual freedoms in pursuit of large but only vaguely related social goals.

Our sights should be set higher. Part of our commitment to diversity is our institutional confidence that students may think differently than we do, and may make private choices of which we disapprove. By all means, if we conclude that students should not visit or join these organizations, let’s tell them they shouldn’t go, and why. Let’s tell them loudly and clearly and persistently. If students behave badly, anywhere, then by all means let us hold them accountable for their actions. And of course, we should continue to adhere to this Faculty’s standards of inclusivity for official Harvard student organizations—the standards we vote every year.

But our long history should have taught us some humility about our capacity to make the best private choices for our students. Let us teach and model our values as best we can. But to make rules for students about their private lives is to admit our own failure to persuade them, through evidence and reason, to live up to our ideals. Or perhaps we just haven’t tried hard enough. I don’t recall freshman advisors or directors of undergraduate studies ever being told that we should warn undergraduates away from sororities. My advisees tell me that they don’t remember the dangers of the final clubs even being mentioned in Freshman orientation.

For all these reasons we move to bar discrimination on the basis of organizational memberships. As several members of this Faculty have expressed to me their fear of being seen voting their conscience in favor of a motion to which the President and the deans are opposed, I respectfully request that the vote at our December meeting be done by paper ballot. Thank you.


  1. I am no longer a Harvard student, but I am a member of a finals club and Harvard's policy, based as it appears to be, on some mercurial assumption that sexual misconduct occurs behind those finals clubs' closed doors is missing a much larger point. Sexual misconduct occurs EVERYWHERE--from the men's soccer team to the freshman dorms in Harvard Yard. Harvard's role is to establish new norms of behavior that all men and women must abide by wherever they are and not single out a particular demographic cohort for punishment just because they happen to belong to an all (fe)male establishment. Professor Lewis, your arguments are scholarly and logical and terrific. But, as usual, I suspect this whole issue is about sex and our inability, as a society, to treat it as a normal human function.

    1. Thanks for the support, but I am skeptical that you are actually a final club member, since the members of the final clubs tend to refer to them correctly, as "final clubs" rather than "finals clubs." In the 19th century there were "waiting clubs" for underclassmen too -- that is the origin of the term. Every time I hear "finals clubs" I wonder if the speaker thinks they consist of Yankee guys in tuxedos gathered together to study for their examinations!

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  3. Hello Professor Lewis, Thank you for your comments. I hope that the faculty can make progress on this measure. The social club sanctions seems antithetical to much of what Harvard stands for. If these actions can be justified for the benefit of the greater good, it seems like almost anything can be. It seems like a slippery slope. Good luck and I hope the Faculty can turn the tide on this issue.