Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My remarks to the FAS meeting of December 6, 2016

The meeting ended without a vote being taken, so the matter will be held over until the February meeting. Below are my remarks. I will comment on what others said once those remarks have been made public.


Madam President: On behalf of 11 faculty colleagues as well as myself, 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 is a simple motion. It says that students should not be punished for joining a club. If you agree with that proposition, you should vote for the motion.

Contrary to the impression that may have been created by the student speakers at the last meeting, students are opposed to the policy about single gender organizations by a nearly 2 to 1 ratio. There are indeed many students who are rightly concerned about the final clubs and their effect on the student community, but in the recent electoral campaign for the presidency of the Undergraduate Council, 3 out of the 4 tickets were opposed to the policy, including the ticket that won. Which raises an interesting question. The newly elected president of the UC is herself a member of an unrecognized women’s club. Should that happen a few years from now, would the College really move to unseat or delegitimize the freely elected president of the student government? What would that teach our students about “Harvard’s values”?

I address some recent counter-arguments in the second Q&A, which was prepared for this meeting, so I can be quite brief today.

Some argue that the motion is overly broad. To the contrary, the motion does nothing at all except to restore the status quo ante May of this year, when the sanctions against members of certain clubs were announced. No one has provided a counterexample since I said this a month ago: Harvard has never in modern times punished students for joining a club. And multiple Harvard precedents support this principle. It seems very odd, for example, to punish students for doing something that Harvard explicitly prohibits us from asking job candidates about: Do you belong to the wrong club?

Some argue that the sanctions are not punishment, but merely deprive students of a privilege. That twists words in a manner worthy of Lewis Carroll. If you are a stellar student who has earned the profound respect of your professors and your peers, and you join a sorority, of course it is punitive for Harvard to say you can’t be a Rhodes candidate, or captain of the softball team, or president of the Democratic Club, or even of the all-female Radcliffe Pitches. And of course, such a punishment constitutes discrimination on the basis of club membership. If Harvard refused to endorse black students for Rhodes Scholarships, that would be racial discrimination. If Harvard refuses to endorse club members for Rhodes Scholarships, that will be discrimination on the basis of belonging to a club. I know Professor Helen Vendler plans to pursue this point.

It is absurd to suggest that this motion is unclear or that it is badly worded. The only lack of clarity arises from the president’s refusal to give a straightforward answer to Professor Thomas’s question at the last meeting as to whether she would honor the faculty vote.

The Faculty should understand that although the policy announced last May is touted as a response to problems of misogyny and sexual assault, it would be utterly ineffective in that regard—a point I know Professor Barbara Grosz hopes to address. In fact, the majority of students who would stand to be punished are women—the members of sororities and the women’s final clubs, who outnumber men in comparable organizations. It is argued in response that women don’t need those clubs because Harvard has its own approved women’s clubs—which are if anything even better, since they admit men! Surely that does not justify punishing women simply for joining their own clubs. I know Professor Margo Seltzer wishes to speak to this point.

We are an educational institution. Our best and most natural strategy on any contentious matter is always to teach the truth. We hear that the proposed sanctions against single-gender organizations are needed because everything else has been tried, but how can that be? The final clubs are said to be unsafe but the College hasn’t warned women to stay away from them. It also hasn’t advised men to avoid discriminatory associations that may in their later lives compromise their career prospects. I know Professor Barbara Barbara Grosz wishes to address whether this policy is even a serious attempt to combat sexual assault. And we have an opportunity here to teach our students how decisions should be made about important social issues, how to identify the problem clearly and specifically and then collaboratively develop a well targeted solution. A properly charged group of students and faculty could come up with a way to solve our actual problems without infringing anyone’s personal freedoms.

Which brings us to the governance question. The statutes clearly state that the College, and specifically discipline of students, are under the jurisdiction of this body. The alarm that went off when the president and the dean announced the new policy last May without properly consulting the faculty was not silenced when the president declined to give a clear answer to Professor Thomas’s question. The Senior Fellow’s recent statement to the Crimson that the sanctions were in place to stay only exacerbated the alarm about who was in charge of discipline of undergraduates—a point on which I know Professor James Engell wishes to expand.

Finally, I was informed last night, on the eve of this meeting and more than six months after submitting this motion, that the Docket Committee will move to postpone this motion indefinitely. I want to be sure that the Faculty understands what a motion for indefinite postponement entails. According to Robert’s Rules, and I quote, a “motion to Postpone Indefinitely is in effect an indirect rejection of the main motion.” There is nothing more to it than that. Robert’s Rules state that a motion for indefinite postponement “opens the merits of the main question to debate to as great an extent as if the main question were before the assembly.” In other words, the motion to postpone indefinitely will be simply another vote on our motion, except that you have to remember to vote no on the motion to postpone if you support our motion. And if the motion to postpone is defeated, as I hope it will be, then you have to vote yes when our motion comes to a vote. A vote on a motion to postpone is equivalent to a vote on the original motion, only with yes and no reversed. That is, the motion to postpone indefinitely will not change the debate at all, but will require us to have two successive secret ballots rather than one.

Colleagues, I regret this waste of your time. In fact, I regret that I am making this motion at all and that we are holding this debate. My co-sponsors and I have tried repeatedly to spare the Faculty this unpleasant spectacle.  We have offered to withdraw our motion if the President would simply agree to rescind the sanctions and remand the important issue of how to deal with the final clubs to an appropriate student-faculty committee.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this offer has been declined.  The President herself has now stated publicly that the policy is imperfect and that she would welcome constructive discussion of alternatives.  Since this meeting of the full Faculty is obviously not the proper forum in which to explore and carefully vet such alternatives, the way forward we suggested, for the president to withdraw the sanctions and remand the matter to an appropriate committee, seems clearly to be the right one.  But here we are. If the president insists on a vote, then vote we must.  A basic principle of our academic society now asks to be reaffirmed, and we hope that you will choose to reaffirm it.

Madam President, junior colleagues who are present, among others, will understandably be reluctant to oppose the administration publicly on this matter. So that they can vote their conscience, I will at the appropriate time ask for paper ballots on both the forthcoming postponement motion and on our original motion.


  1. Thank you for your leadership Professor Lewis

  2. Bravo, Professor Lewis. Thank you for lighting a candle in the darkness.

    J. Rothstein '78

  3. Keep up the fight -- the alumni are counting on you.

  4. Harry, thank you for fighting for the rights of Harvard students. You have been unwavering in this: long before I had the pleasure of being your student, through that time, and clearly you are still our champion to this day. Thank you!

  5. I admired you as a student, I admire you more now, sir.

    1. So nice to hear from you, Mike. Thanks. I appreciate the kind words, and also those from Tony just above! You too are remembered with fondness.

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