Sunday, July 23, 2017

Social Club Press Roundup

Several articles of interest have appeared in the aftermath of the report of the Clark-Khurana committee, which recommends a total ban on "exclusive" social clubs.

There is no substitute for humor. It's actually too bad that Harvard didn't think of using this weapon against the more ridiculous of the clubs, rather than allowing itself to become the target. Like any good humor piece, this one makes a serious point. The rationales keep changing; the set of affected clubs keeps expanding; but the horror stories in the reports remain the same, because killing off the men's final clubs has always been the real agenda--a conclusion in search of an appropriate premise to imply it, now for more than a year. It cannot be an accident that discussion of sexual assault faded away last year once it became clear that closing down the final clubs could not be justified on that pretext.

By the way, not stated in this piece but certainly implicit is that the slope is indeed slippery. It was asserted repeatedly last fall that sanctioning the single-gender clubs could not possibly be a step down a slippery slope; the original policy had a very narrow and unique target, we were told. We have skidded quite a distance between last May and this July, but there are plenty of arguably obnoxious organizations left for Harvard to bar students from joining. I hope the next time someone asks whether this could be extended to a conservative religious group, we will not again be dismissively told that there is no slippery slope.

This piece, too, is brilliant, in an entirely different way. As it is behind a paywall (it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education), I will quote just one passage to give the drift.

To quote the great philosopher Clint Eastwood, as Dirty Harry, "a man’s got to know his limitations." The same may be said of a university. Its jurisdiction and authority are rightly bounded by the perimeters of its campus. The certitude of its moral and intellectual prowess does not give it infinite license to control the private lives or thoughts of its students, to manage the affairs of society at large, or to deliver its principles as if tablets from on high. The evangelical zeal of any university, its messianic compulsion to promote progress (as it and it alone would define it), is a sure sign that it misunderstands its core responsibilities: educating its students and demonstrating by word and example the need to respect the rights of others to self-determination, even when adjudged to be wrong. A university on a mission is a dangerous thing in a pluralistic society, a betrayal of the diverse values it purports to represent, and a sure way to alienate those it seeks to enlighten.
The list of examples Gup goes on to cite certainly makes one wonder, as one of my colleagues did with me this morning, whether some future writer will look back on these events and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Seven Votes (Crimson)
This is the blockbuster news story of the year by the Crimson. If correct, and it seems well sourced and no corrections have been added to the story in the two days since it appeared, then the Clark-Khurana committee did not reach nearly so extensive a consensus as the report of that committee suggests. (I do not refer to this as a "faculty committee," since many members were not faculty, and faculty who are not also administrators were in the minority.) The committee members certainly have my sympathy--it's a complicated issue about which it had to reach a conclusion under time pressure and with limited information. (In fact, very little factual information is in the report. I wonder how carefully the policies of other colleges were studied. There are no thanks to people at Bowdoin or Yale who were consulted, no evidence of road trips, and very little if any numerical data.)

From the time I--respectfully and in good faith--withdrew my motion, I have said nothing about the committee or its work, until now. The stunning revelation is the one in the title--that apparently the recommendation for a total ban came out of a single up-or-down vote (described as a straw vote) among ten alternatives. The Crimson reports that seven of the 27 committee members voted in favor of the option that was then reported to be the committee's recommendation. Even middle school students learn not to conduct a vote that way when choosing a team captain--the results are meaningless. And here the vote is being used to radically restructure undergraduate life forever. This is the culmination of a consultative process that was supposed to get us to a unifying end to a year of divisive discussions set off when the policy was announced, out of the blue, as students and faculty were leaving town.

If true, the article confirms all the worst that our critics think of academia: That we come to conclusions first, write fake reports to justify those conclusions, fill them with phony numbers ("small minority") and sanctimonious language about our own moral superiority (really--"pernicious" appears four times), and then claim high moral ground we do not deserve. The sadness of this, unless the article is somehow debunked, is that it sullies the reputations of academics who make other decisions with human consequences--political scientists, climatologists, medical researchers, admissions professionals. It makes us a laughing stock, and that hurts us all.

Harvard alums furious over proposal to ban elite social clubs (New York Post)
I am quoted skeptically about a new argument for banning clubs: Harvard students can't handle being rejected from them. I don't doubt that this upsets people, probably more now than a couple of years ago. (Harvard's constant complaining about how important the clubs are has probably been good for recruiting.) I get it about the stress of competition--in Excellence Without a Soul I quoted one of my assistant deans as saying he loved athletes because "they are the only people here who know how to lose." I am just skeptical about the seriousness of the problem, and that a ban is a remotely sensible response. We are an educational institution, and there is no educational value in protecting students from the consequences of their choices by taking those choices away from them. In any case, I wonder if anybody really cares that much about the stress resulting from trying to get into a club--we seem fine when students get "lotteried by application" out of two or three Gen Ed courses, which they  actually need to take in order to graduate. (The Post had an earlier editorial, Harvard's plan to make sure undergrads never grow up.)

Harvard women's groups frustrated by efforts to ban them (Boston Globe)
This does a good job shifting the attention to the collateral damage done to women's clubs, most of which have little in common with the men's clubs that were the original target. One of the annoying attitudes one hears is that the clubs don't really add anything, so if they get injured in the process of killing off the minority that are widely agreed to be obnoxious, it will still be a win.

A cautionary tale for Harvard on male-only clubs (Boston Globe)
This article draws a parallel between the Harvard ban and a recent case at Wesleyan where a fraternity won a lawsuit against the university. Unfortunately it  seems to miss the point that the new Harvard policy, which is not based on gender, may have been designed to avoid the flaw that made Wesleyan vulnerable. On the other hand, given the chaotic design-making process described in the "Seven Votes" story, that speculation may be giving the Harvard process too much credit.


A year later, after so much has been written and said, I am exactly where I was last May. Students, just like the rest of us, should be able to join any private organization they want. We should all be held accountable for our actions, not for our choice of clubs. There are good reasons why Harvard prohibits us from asking about clubs when we make hiring decisions--because what clubs people belong to is nobody's business but their own. I will return to these thoughts on another occasion.

(updated 7/24 to reflect correction to the last Globe story)


  1. If these stories are accurate, perhaps the committee's thinking will continue to evolve to the position of reinstating Harry Lewis as the Dean of Harvard College.

  2. Professor Lewis,

    As a student (rising junior) in the college, it seems clear to me that the people most effected by these actions, and the least involved in decisions surrounding these actions, are students. I am in the interesting position of having punched Pleiades last fall and making it to the final round, until being cut. I am neither mad, nor hurt by the rejection: I had a great time punching, met some great people, and realize that if the group did not see me as a good fit, I probably would have ended up unhappy in the group.

    This is one simple experience of a final club - ask any undergraduate and they will have their own experiences, ranging from acceptance to joy to anger to love to hate, all on a huge spectrum (in the same way that many undergraduates have a range of emotions relating to the college itself.)

    Why not, then, actually engage with undergraduates about the issue! There are so many stories to tell, so many opinions to be heard. We are already forced to take certain surveys each year, why not add one surrounding our social experiences? This is a real question - I cannot fathom why the university wouldn't try to understand the people they are theoretically helping. I am hoping you can address this question, and perhaps if you feel so inclined to engage others in the discussion, in the hopes of gaining a clear picture of the true feelings of the student population.

    I do not know this picture. I know how I feel, I know how some friends feel, but I do not presume to understand the student body as a whole, and I think anyone who presumes to do so (however well intentioned) is either lying to others, or lying to themselves. How can we attempt to find answers to ill defined questions. For a university that prides itself on research, academics, and the pursuit of knowledge and truth, it is disheartening to experience the administration's search for fast answers, or affirmation of preconceived notions, as opposed to a real search for the truth.

    Thank you for your time and consideration,
    Sarah Judd

    1. Sarah,
      One of the disappointing things about the report is that it makes so little effort to understand the structure of undergraduate life. (Even worse, it doesn't say anything about the structure of undergraduate life at Bowdoin, even though that is supposed to be the model this policy is supposed to help us achieve!)
      One of the implications of the reasoning behind the ban is that Harvard students are spending too much time getting away from each other, and if clubs were banned, they would get together more in the Houses. What seems to me wrong about this (but you would know better) is that it is my impression that most Harvard students like or even love their Houses, and the ones who are in off campus organizations don't see that in opposition, any more than those in ROTC or the softball team think those intense activities help them avoid being in the Houses. The data point I cite in defense of the thesis that nobody is trying to avoid the mixing that happens in the Houses is that nobody (less than 5%, I am pretty sure) moves off campus, which some would surely do if they were trying to avoid their peers. And nobody is required to live on campus after freshman year. In fact, I am told there is a good degree of overlap between HoCos and off campus club leadership. So the idea that the clubs, sororities, etc. need to be shut down so that students, who would then have nowhere else to go, would be forced to mix in the Houses, seems to me not just patronizing but based on false premises. Anyway, I don't think anyone accuses students who have dim sum in Chinatown with their friend on Sunday, rather than going to brunch in the House, of somehow having an inappropriate and exclusionary social life.
      A good report would have taken us through some kind of analysis like this.
      One other thing. Some students who read the report told me they could not log in to the discussion wiki, even though the report says they can. I suggested to the USGSO committee that they at least set up a parallel wiki for students. I was told to tell these students that they should email the committee at the address in the cover email with which they received the report. I hope you and your fellow students will do that -- silence will be reported as acquiescence -- though of course that is an oddly antisocial way to have a conversation about social life, not nearly the same thing as a forum where students could talk to each other.
      Thanks for writing.

    2. It's an amusing collision of worlds; I am from Brunswick Maine, and witness firsthand the odd social pressures at Bowdoin. They have problems with students moving off campus (a problem you are correct Harvard does not face - 98% of students live on campus all four years, a testament to house pride as well as rent prices in Cambridge), and also have a serious drinking culture. Athletic teams have their own off campus houses, as well as other groups from campus. There is not greek life in name, but Bowdoin does not seem to me like an idyllic social atmosphere to strive for either.

      It is true that students are unable to log in to the discussion wiki from the link in the report. It's upsetting because I would be interested in seeing both student and faculty points of view, however in the meantime I will follow up with the committee via email.

      Thanks for your response

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