Thursday, September 14, 2017

Motion update

For those who are just coming up to speed, Harvard Magazine published a good summary of the situation at the time I filed the new version of the motion about club memberships.
The Crimson reports, on authority of a member of the Faculty Council, that the motion will be discussed at the October meeting of the Faculty, but not voted until the November meeting. This may or may not be true; I can't confirm it, since these matters are decided by the Docket Committee, which has not communicated any such decision to me. (The December 2016 FAS meeting was adjourned without a vote in a rather odd way, so the signatories to the motion are watching these procedural decisions rather closely this time.)
The Crimson has another story of interest, about a Title IX complaint against the University in which the Final Clubs are featured prominently. This news tends to support the theory that what got the ball rolling toward the mess we are in was fear that Harvard might be legally liable for a tort that happened at a final club. That would explain, for example, the insistence that the final decision about the clubs is for the president to make rather than the Faculty, in spite of the unambiguous language of the Statutes (she would be acting as a fiduciary, would go the logic, notwithstanding the assignment to the Faculty of responsibility for the discipline of students). It would explain the early public involvement of the Senior Fellow, who traditionally has not weighed in on questions about student parties, and the "regular" discussions taking place about final clubs between the College administration and the Corporation.  It would also explain the otherwise peculiar decision, even in the recent harsh version of the proposals, that the ethnic fraternities and sororities would be left alone, in spite of being doubly "exclusionary," on the basis of both gender and ethnicity. As they draw from several local universities, Harvard may have calculated that the risk of liability was small for events that might happen at them.
Connecting these dots suggests how the ball may have gotten rolling, but it is not in meant to question the sincerity of those who support the sanctions for other reasons. Whether or not this speculation is correct, I would fully support Harvard taking strong action to limit its risks, and protect students' safety to boot. (Though if risk mitigation really got this started, I wish the Corporation had been equally risk-conscious back in 2008, when it lost billions from the endowment overnight.)
On the other hand, the Title IX origin would make a great deal of what has been said over the past year rather incomplete and beside the point, if not disingenuous, and the actual solution proposed both overbroad and not even sure to include the original target in its kill zone. (Is the champagne being chilled in anticipation of Harvard's glorious victory over the KKG sorority?) It would also be worrisome in suggesting that the Corporation's interpretation of University governance is that the president has limitless authority to make any kind of decision over matters in which the University can be said to have any risk.
One more news item. The President has some words about the motion in her opening of term greetings. I will leave it to readers to make up their own minds about her characterization of the matter under discussion. But I would note that it is fairly unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, for the president to speak so strongly in public against a motion to be debated and voted by the Faculty at a meeting over which she will preside.

The first Crimson story linked above describes a one-pager I shared with the Faculty Council; I include it below for your information.


Harvard College shall not discipline, penalize, or otherwise sanction students for joining, or affiliating with, any lawful organization, political party, or social, political, or other affinity group.

Explanatory note. This motion is intended to give students who join or form legal clubs or similar organizations the same protections that existing policies afford to all other students.  It also secures their right of free association.  If the policy is adopted, students could not, simply because of membership in a legal club, social or political organization, be sanctioned by the Administrative Board or by the Honor Council, or deprived of any academic or extracurricular opportunity or honor for which they would otherwise be eligible.

This motion is a version of the motion submitted last year in response to the USGSO policy announced in May of 2016. When that policy was reconsidered, the motion was withdrawn. Now that the recommendations of the Clark-Khurana committee have proven to be even more expansive than the original proposal, it is time for the full Faculty to debate and decide the question of principle: should students ever be punished for joining private organizations?

To recap very briefly the main points raised in support of the motion last year:
  • Students should be punished for their acts, not their memberships.
  • The right of free association, like the right of free speech, should apply to students as it applies to all US citizens.
  • Harvard has never in modern times blacklisted any organization by prohibiting membership.
  • Harvard specifically prohibits even asking faculty candidates about club memberships.
  • In the 1950s, Harvard famously stood behind the right of faculty to join publicly unpopular but legally constituted organizations.
  • The Verba report on ROTC (written while ROTC banned gay students) stated the principle explicitly: To punish students for joining a discriminatory organization would be “a paternalistic policy inconsistent with Harvard’s general approach.” The Verba principle is in diametrical contrast to the view expressed last year that “of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate.”
The motion has been reworded to drop the term “discrimination,” which some found confusing or objectionable, and to use direct language instead. Further relevant discussion appears on the FAS Wiki.

In response to last year’s motion, some protested that bringing the McCarthy era into the conversation was alarmist, as the policy then proposed was narrowly targeted and could not possibly be a step down any slippery slope. The fact that the new proposal does indeed take several steps down that slope confirms that a broad statement of principle is needed.

It is urgent that the Faculty’s voice be heard corporately, not via hand-picked representatives. When the USGSO policy was announced in 2016, the president accepted it simultaneously. When the Implementation Committee report was issued last year, Dean Khurana accepted most of its recommendations simultaneously. There has been no indication that the Faculty will be asked to vote on the final policy. The president, the deans, and the Faculty itself need to know the Faculty’s view on the fundamental question asserted by this motion.

This motion has twenty-one signatories, including all twelve who signed last year’s version.

Harry Lewis, 12 September 2017


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    1. Prof. Engell's link to the university statutes linked to a webpage for HSPH that has been subsequently eliminated. Thankfully, preserves access to the content, and Prof. Engell's link now redirects there.

      Corrected for autocorrect malfunction.