Sunday, December 11, 2016

The State of the Debate

Where things stand

Harvard Magazine has posted a complete account of the December 6 FAS meeting.  Harvard Magazine gives matters like this much fuller and more professional coverage than the Crimson, which also attends the meetings, but the Crimson is to be congratulated for landing the money quote after the meeting, from beloved University Professor Helen Vendler: “I find the tactics of the administration loathsome, and I mean to have that word quoted.”

For those who are just tuning in, I submitted a motion last May, joined by eleven other professors who had reached out to me after my letter to Dean Khurana became public. In my letter, I explained my concerns about the new policy on unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs), which would bar their members from a variety of college roles and honors. Our motion codified the first thing I thought of when I heard about the policy: You don’t punish people for joining a club. That’s un-American, as I told the Boston Globe a week ago.

Many discussions and two full faculty meetings later, the matter is not settled. If our motion passes, the policy is blocked, but nothing else changes since there are no other circumstances under which Harvard has penalized anyone for joining a club. The motion is therefore a self-explanatory way of blocking the policy without changing anything else. In particular, it does not say that the final clubs should be left alone. It says only that Harvard will not punish students for joining clubs. As both I and Jim Engell emphasize in our remarks to the Faculty, we would much prefer not to vote on the motion at all and instead to have the policy withdrawn and then to have a serious discussion about the problems the policy is meant to address.

The dominant arguments

As I see it, there are really two arguments against my motion and for the policy as it stands. The first argument is that the final clubs are bad places, dangerous and noisy, over-privileged and under-diversified, and Harvard has to do something about them. The second argument is that USGSOs undercut College residential life, which should be happening in the Houses and in the Yard, not off-campus.

Neither of these arguments can trump the free-association principle that is the basis for our motion. We don’t punish people for joining organizations we don’t like and that they have a legal right to join. And we also don’t sacrifice individual rights to the community’s broad social goals. Our motion has no implications about other tactics to solve the problems the clubs cause.

There is an unverified premise behind both arguments against our motion: that making the clubs go co-ed would make them better behaved and would bring social life to the Houses. There is not a shred of evidence for either, and actually some evidence to the contrary. In the student survey comments, for example, the co-educational Hasty Pudding Club comes in for the same kind of criticism as the final clubs. In her remarks at the December 6 meeting, Professor Margo Seltzer does a good job on the likely ineffectiveness of the policy to address any of the problems to which it is said to be a response.

Of course, no right is unlimited, including the right to assemble. One could take the view—and some of the rhetoric goes in this direction—that the final clubs are so noxious that they fall beyond the pale of basic civil liberties, that they are unprotected by reference to the First Amendment right to association in the same way that obscene speech is not protected by the right to free speech. The problem with that argument is that nobody is claiming that level of toxicity for the majority of the organizations affected, which are not the male final clubs, but female final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. (And even among the male final clubs, not all host noisy parties with female guests.) If the policy had targeted the male final clubs, I probably would not have liked it, but I doubt I would have protested loudly. But the policy is not only likely to be ineffective in attacking the real problems, it is going to be accompanied by unjustified collateral damage to private organizations about which we have not been hearing any horror stories.

The argument from inclusivity

These questions about the effectiveness of the sanctions are being avoided by shifting attention to a third argument, that single-gender organizations are inherently discriminatory. Having heard the gender-discrimination arguments in various forms, I wind up skeptical that this really is a primary, rather than secondary, motivation for the policy. The reason for my skepticism is that the College itself has a variety of single-gender organizations—which are in principle open to everyone but in practice include only women, or only men. There is the Organization of Asian American Sisters in Service, for example, and the Black Men’s Forum. The FAQ the administration distributed before the December FAS meeting went so far as to list, quite proudly, all the single-gender clubs the College sponsors, and to state that the Harvard recognizes their importance. From this I infer that if the final clubs weren’t such bad places, their single-gender nature would not have excited the antipathy it has. To make the distinction between de facto and de jure single-gender status carry such moral weight requires us to celebrate clubs that are restricted, both in mission and in practice, on both gender and ethnicity—while finding gender-exclusive off-campus clubs so appalling that students must be punished just for joining them. It requires thinking that an off-campus, service-oriented sorority is so out of step with “our deepest values” that students must be penalized for joining it, while accepting that Harvard’s officially recognized BDSM club and the group that planned to put on the Black Mass are in step with Harvard’s values and should receive Harvard’s direct support.

Even President Faust seems to acknowledge that the extension of the “inclusivity” principle to women’s social clubs is problematic. A Gazette interview included the following exchange:

GAZETTE: There’s been some backlash from members of women’s clubs who feel that their clubs could vanish along with the “support systems, safe spaces, and alumnae networks” that the clubs enable. How do you respond to those concerns?
FAUST: 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.

Given that the policy had already been put in place at the time President Faust said this, she is really putting forward a “repeal and replace” argument, with nothing substantial backing up the commitment to replace. In any case, I don’t sense in her comments the same animus against gender-exclusiveness that I heard on Tuesday from Professor Menand, who had hands-down the best applause line of the meeting.

The motion is pure sophistry. It basically says, We cannot discriminate against people who discriminate because that would be a form of discrimination. Seriously?…Of course we can be intolerant of intolerance, and of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate. That’s what liberal societies do.

Now the first problem with this exercise of self-righteousness is the implication that anyone who belongs to a discriminatory organization is a person who discriminates. By that standard every adherent to a religion that does not give women equal status is a person who discriminates, and all Wellesley students are gender-discriminators. (I didn’t start this game of rhetorical excess.) That seems an over-reach, but for the sake of argument let’s accept that understanding of what it means to be a person who discriminates on the basis of gender.

The other and larger problem is that what Professor Menand says liberal societies do is simply false—at least it’s false for the liberal society in which we are living. As Americans, we let people form and join organizations, as long as both the people and the organizations obey the laws. We may try to persuade them not to join, but we don’t punish them for doing so. We wait for them to take some action before we take action. That is what liberal societies do: they leave people free to make their own decisions about their private associations. As I said at the Constitution Center debate, “The spirit of the first amendment is that sometimes individuals get together for reasons the government may not like. The government does not punish people for doing that. In a society based on the rule of reason, the First Amendment expresses our confidence that in the long run, we are all better off letting people exercise their freedom of association, like their freedoms of speech and religion.”

Four times now, opponents of our motion have made analogies between gender and ethnic exclusivity. President Faust and Professor Allan Brandt both associated our reference to the First Amendment with the tactics of southern segregationists, and two speakers at the FAS meeting used an argument to the effect that “we would never stand for this if these were all-white clubs.” The legal history is inept because it was exactly the right of association that allowed the NAACP to organize in Alabama to end racial segregation, over the objections of the government (NAACP v. Alabama). And we do not, either at Harvard or in the U.S., treat gender and ethnicity identically. Most obviously, we at Harvard do not allow men and women to live in the same room as freshmen, and restrict such arrangements in the Houses; but we would not even consider a request for a white student to be roomed only with whites. That doesn’t make single-gender social organizations right or wrong, but it does mean that we honor certain nuances of the social dynamic between members of the opposite sex. Harvard has taken a particular point of view on all this for its own purposes—it has a Women’s Center, but no Black Students’ Center—and this is not the place to debate whether its lack of parallelism exactly right. My only point is that citing the ethnic analogy is not a slam-dunk winning argument proving that women who want to be away from men for brief parts of their private lives, and vice versa, are somehow gendered analogs of racial segregationists. Tension between men and women occupying the same space is not always evidence of misogyny or male privilege, or misandry for that matter.

All of which is to say that the “inclusiveness” argument ultimately reduces to the first argument—the final clubs are bad places and we have to do something about them. The policy is a device to go after them hard without naming them—and with a promise to do something else about organizations that we don’t hate quite so much but get caught up in the same policy. The policy wisely avoids any threat of sanctioning other single-gender organizations Harvard students join, such as Lambda Upsilon of AKA. While that sorority is discriminatory and therefore, by the Menand standard, it would be OK to discriminate against its members, it is held outside the policy because it includes MIT and Wellesley students.

Bottom line, we’re not really going after USGSOs because they are not inclusive—we are going after them because we hate them for other reasons. But in America, we don’t go after organizations we hate by punishing their members merely for joining. The ends do not justify the means.

(I am occasionally accused of melodramatic slippery-slope argumentation. Some of my colleagues get annoyed when I bring up McCarthyism, which was the first thing I thought of when I saw the policy. The policy is only about USGSOs, I am told—Harvard would never extend it, so I should stop stoking people’s fears. I agree that Harvard is not going to start punishing people for being Republicans and so on, but the reason I keep following the train of logic from the premises Harvard states to their logical conclusions is that when the same premises imply other conclusions on which Harvard is obviously not going to act, it means that the premises for acting against the final clubs weren’t all stated. In the situation at hand, the unstated premise, which distinguishes the final clubs from the Republican party and so on, is that we hate the final clubs.)

Are the final clubs really private organizations?

One more variation on these themes needs to be addressed. Yes, students are entitled to their private lives, goes the argument, but the final clubs are private in name only. They are parasitic on Harvard. They couldn’t survive without exploiting Harvard’s reputation and drawing their membership from Harvard students. Therefore, they are not really entirely independent of Harvard, and that gives Harvard the right to penalize students who join them, unless the clubs adhere to Harvard’s nondiscrimination policies.

Here I accept all the premises, but you need more premises to get to the conclusion. Let’s consider the Harvard Book Store, for example ( It’s not all-Harvard, but it is surely parasitic on Harvard—I’ll bet a lot of tourists think it’s Harvard University’s book store. Suppose that the Harvard Book Store changed its business model and instead of selling the great stuff it now sells, switched to selling pornography and pot (which becomes legal in Massachusetts in a few days). It’s sitting right there on the edge of campus and Harvard students have to walk by it every day. Maybe it even hosts pot parties. Harvard students increasingly are showing up stoned in class. After a few years, the University is gravely concerned, with good reasons, about the effect the Harvard Book Store on Harvard students. Would Harvard respond by penalizing students who frequent the store?

Surely not. We’d work with the City authorities to make sure the store was operating in a strictly legal way. We’d work with HUHS and other services to mount an educational campaign to be sure students know the dangers of pot-smoking. We’d send a letter to parents of matriculating students asking for their help in avoiding the worst consequences of this lawful but odious company. We’d have a segment in freshman orientation about how pot and porn are in the long run bad for you even if in the short run they seem like fun. Before we did anything, we’d assemble some students, faculty, and administrators (including police) to brainstorm about what the problem really was and what to do about it. What we wouldn’t do is to issue an unenforceable rule stating that nobody who went into the Harvard Book Store would be endorsed for a Rhodes Scholarship.

There are plenty of ways to deal with private organizations we hate and are parasitic on Harvard other than to create a fictional category of not-fully-private organizations that must behave like Harvard organizations, on pain of severe consequences to their clientele.

Damming up the leakage of social life

It is argued that USGSOs must be brought low because of the ill effect they have on life in the Houses and in the Yard. This is the argument put succinctly in the College’s second FAQ: “The USGSOs … undermine the Yard and House system by pulling social life away from campus.” While I disagree with the way this argument is being used, I respect it and don’t think it’s a shadow version of some other agenda. Faculty deans—Professor McDonald in the meeting, Professor Eck in the Crimson, and Professor Khurana himself—understandably use this argument. Of course, it’s not unrelated to the bad-places argument, but it’s fundamentally different, because it is an argument about the health of the House system, the importance of living and learning in a diverse community, all values that are important to us.

Yet there are serious problems with using this argument as a basis for the USGSO policy. The first is disproportion. In a word: Really? It is so important that student social life happen in the Houses rather than off-campus somewhere that you are going to severely penalize students who roam off Harvard property to have fun, or just to relax? The second problem is deeper, and goes to the question of what Harvard is. I have been hearing this in so many words from a variety of alumni, but here is the way I put it in my original letter to Dean Khurana:

When people ask me to characterize Harvard students, I always decline. The group is too diverse in their talents and backgrounds, and in the exercise of their tastes and freedoms. There is not one Harvard, but a thousand; this is a place, I like to say, that you can make your own, because the opportunities are unlimited and your freedom of thought and action are also unlimited, even when your views are inimical to established thinking. By reaching into the private associations of Harvard students …, you are, I fear, passing from creating community to molding a monoculture….

I think the only thing that makes this “social life should be on campus” argument even vaguely plausible is the first argument—the implication that social life is not only outside the Houses but is in bad places. Would we really think it bad for the Harvard community if undergraduates regularly patronized local restaurants and went into Chinatown for dim sum? Perhaps so—after all, Harvard has evicted Au Bon Pain and Al’s from Holyoke Center and will replace them with Harvard-branded eateries when the Smith Center opens. That too sounds like an effort to keep students on campus. But really—one of the reasons students come to Harvard rather than to more rural colleges is the excitement of city life. There can be no stemming the flow of social life off campus—it’s not some kind of fluid that will remain in the Houses if the leakage into the final club parties is stoppered. The problem is not that students are socializing off campus, it’s where off campus they are going. So we are back to the first argument: The final clubs are bad places.

The whole issue of off-campus social life, and how it relates to the USGSOs, calls for a deeper analysis than any that has been offered. For all the horror stories about the final clubs—and Professor McDonald did a terrific job in the meeting citing my own statements of disgust at what they represent—we don’t actually have a good grasp of what social niche most of the USGSOs fill. I have tried to understand it better over the past few months through casual conversations with my own students as well as information from student leaders, and the picture is not at all what one might have thought from listening to the political discourse about the USGSO policy. No one speaking for the administration seems to think the women’s clubs and sororities are particularly important. In the quotation above, President Faust, oddly, acknowledged that they filled a role but nonetheless indicated that they had to be eliminated on principle even before their role could be understood or filled in another way. Professor Menand wants them gone for another reason—they are an attempt to create a separate but equal version of the male final clubs, but separate is never equal. So while the male clubs need to be killed because they are too strong, the female clubs can safely be expunged because they are yet weak.

All of this seems dreadfully under-informed from what I have been able to figure out. Facts are hard to come by, but the first thing to say is that there are more women than men in unrecognized single-gender clubs. The policy affects them all, but the arguments are largely about the worst behaviors of the worst of the male final clubs, even though the population affected is more women than men. And even some of the arguments about the worst behaviors are off target. In place of the sexual assault statistics, which seem increasingly to be acknowledged to be beside the point of the policy, more is being said about the elitism and special alumni networking of the male final clubs, as well as about those hideous parties and their effect on College social life.

More women than men are affected by the sanctions. When I said in my remarks to the FAS that there was no report on USGSOs on the basis of which I or any other faculty member could make an intelligent recommendation about what to do instead of the new sanctions, I meant, for example, that I had to figure this fact out for myself. Here are some data I have pieced together from students. The numbers may be wrong—they did not come from unbiased sources. But insofar as I was able to check them, my several sources are consistent.

Male final clubs: 500 members
Male fraternities: 175 members
Female final clubs: 400 members
Female sororities: 500 members

There is some overlap, but even if 10% of the sorority members are in female final clubs, and none of the fraternity members are in male final clubs, significantly more women than men are hit by the sanctions. If any reader has better numbers, I would love to get them.

These numbers suggest an obvious question. What the hell is going on here? Why are so many women in sororities? Comments I have heard from faculty arguing against my motion suggest they think the sororities are a separate-but-unequal response to the male final clubs—that is Professor Menand’s misimpression. This is nonsense. Most of the USGSOs, except for the final clubs, don’t even have clubhouses. What I hear from students is quite different, more like what Ali Partovi said in the Globe about his fraternity:

“There’s a lot of people who share a distaste of the final clubs not just because of sexism but also because of the elitism, yet this policy punishes the guilty and the innocent indiscriminately,” said Ali Partovi, a 1994 graduate who was a member of the local chapter of Sigma Chi. … Partovi, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, said that as a nerdy, immigrant student on financial aid, he found Harvard lonely and exclusionary. In Sigma Chi, he said, he found a “ragtag group of misfits” and comforting camaraderie more welcoming than the final clubs.

One of the interesting things I have learned over the past six months is that while I cannot recall ever learning that a male computer scientist was in a final club, a fair number of women in CS seem to be in sororities. The usual reasons given for membership in USGSOs can’t explain this. These students I know who belong to sororities are not big partiers—in fact, I suspect the reason few if any male computer scientists are in final clubs is that they don’t have time to party. (How about making the non-science concentrators work harder as a way of cutting down on those final club parties?) Nor is it the career networking that is said to motivate final club members to join. No male or female computer science student needs to join a social club for career advancement—they already have to fight off job offers, and the Women in Computer Science group is particularly skilled at corporate relationship-building.

Some of the women CS students have explained their membership by pointing out that they spend quite enough time being surrounded by men in their classes and don’t need a lecture from Harvard about how they are bad people for joining a women’s club. One pointed out that there were still no senior women faculty in the Math department, and maybe Harvard should stop being so indignant about her membership in a single-gender organization until the time when Harvard’s actual practices got into better alignment with its vaunted inclusiveness values. Even President Faust, in the Gazette interview quoted above, seems to concede the asymmetry between the roles these organizations play in the lives of men and women students. Whatever felt need these organizations are helping to fulfill, it’s not partying. It’s wrong to identify “social life” with boozy parties, and we just don’t know enough to be so dismissive of these organizations. In some of them, apparently, women find mutual support. From the women I talked to, I more often heard about relaxation and service and peer support than I heard about alcohol.

It seems unwise to crack down on these associations at a time Harvard is preaching loudly about the stresses of College life and the need for students to attend to their mental health. These associations are very important to some women, and given the number of women who belong to USGSOs, they are probably important to the emotional health of a large number of students. Even if we accept other arguments for penalizing women who belong to them, it is wrong to dismiss their clubs as superfluous and unnecessary. Students join them for a reason, and it is not mostly so they can drink.

Which brings me back to my original worry about the policy. Students are entitled to their private lives, and what they do off Harvard property isn’t Harvard’s business to punish. We don’t understand the patterns of student life, and they keep changing as the student population changes. It is—to use the language of the Verba report on ROTC—unacceptably paternalistic for Harvard to conclude that no student needs any of these organizations in their private lives. And for the women’s organizations, the paternalism is of a particularly condescending form: the arrogance of an insensitive father who tells his daughter what not to do, but does not even want to understand why she is behaving as she is. Harvard is trying to exercise too much control over too complicated, too independent, too entrepreneurial a student population, by promulgating a sweeping regulatory fix that won’t solve any of the problems it was supposed to solve and will cause significant collateral damage instead.

I still hope the sanctions will be withdrawn so students and faculty can come up with a set of ideas for attacking the real problems, without the overreach.

P.S. I mentioned that Harvard prohibits questions about club memberships in job interviews. You can download the “Unacceptable Questions” document from this page.

PPS. I’d like to thank the several students who have helped me understand how the Harvard world looks to them and provided the numbers I quote above.

(Updated December 12 to reflect the fact that the Harvard Magazine account now includes the remarks of all the speakers.)


  1. Good News: I cannot imagine any intelligent counterargument to what you have said. Hence surely you will succeed.

    Bad News: When I first read about Universities having speech codes I also read arguments that could not be intelligently refuted against them. 30 years later we still have them.

    Another argument: If you ban organizations or speech then you shift the conversation from the interesting and productive topic of ``is this speech offensive, is this clud bad for the campus'' to the less interesting and less productive argument of ``can the school really ban this''

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