Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Professor Jason Mitchell's Minority Report

Professor Mitchell has kindly allowed me to post his minority report. It is very much worth reading, a model of reasoned analysis and clear writing.


29 September 2017

In its Final Report, the Committee on Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations (USGSOs) has modified its preliminary recommendation of June 2017, which would bar undergraduates from joining Final clubs, fraternities, sororities, or similar off-campus single-gender organizations (such as the Hasty Pudding).  In lieu of a single policy, the Final Report considers a variety of strategies for addressing the USGSOs, which range from the sanction policy of May 2016 to calls for engagement with students to more aggressive police enforcement of underage drinking and noise statutes.  The choice to adopt such a “multiple recommendation” approach reflects the continuing deep divisions within our community about how best to address the USGSOs.  In discussions with many colleagues and students—and over many hours of debate within the Committee itself—it has become obvious that these issues do not admit to any straightforward solution, and that colleagues who start from the same goal of making Harvard the best place it can be may nevertheless arrive at very different end points.  The purpose of this note is to offer an analysis of the main sources of these differences.  As such, it is not intended as a dissent per se, but as a formal attempt to clarify some of the principles and conceptual distinctions that seem to matter most to my colleagues and students.
As I see it, when members of our community disagree about how to address the all-male Final clubs and other USGSOs, we may be disagreeing about either of two distinct questions.  The first of these asks, “What problem are we trying to solve?”; the second, “What is the best way to solve it?”  The Committee’s Final Report makes clear that a range of answers exists to the latter—thus, its “multiple recommendations” strategy.  But, likewise, different members of our community provide very different answers to the question of what problem we are, in the first place, trying to solve.  These differences have been reflected in the seemingly different ways that the problem of Final clubs has been framed for the Faculty over time and in different documents—many colleagues feel that the rationale for sanctioning USGSO membership has morphed from an initial focus on sexual assault, to later concerns about gender-based discrimination, and most recently, to issues of inclusion, belonging, and privilege.  Indeed, the Committee spent a good deal of time discussing not only these problems, but also additional ones, such as the distorting effects of Final clubs on student social life and the health and safety concerns they pose for our students.
Some of my colleagues have decided that these shifts in rationale reflect some form of political expediency (“let’s keep making different arguments until the Faculty buy one of them”).  But we may do better to conclude instead that the problem of the all-male Final clubs is—as psychoanalysts and philosophers of science would say—overdetermined.  That is, we should not disavow the all-male Final clubs because they increase the incidence of sexual assault or because they discriminate against women or because they advance the prerogatives of a few individuals at the expense of many others or because the undermine student life or because they encourage unsafe drinking.  We should repudiate them because they do all of these things.  Perhaps any one such aspect of the clubs would be sufficient to make the case against them; together they lead, as the Final Report notes, to our community’s shared sense that we cannot afford to do nothing about them.
Note that I have restricted the point above to all-male Final clubs, and this is with intent.  Many of us believe firmly that despite its shifting rationales, the College is “really” trying to address problems specific to the all-male Final clubs.  After all, these are the only groups that own property adjacent to campus and that host the parties outside of which female undergraduates queue in the hopes of being admitted.  These are the groups that perpetuate privilege most perniciously.  And these are the groups that our colleagues have uniquely identified as important loci of sexual assault.  Indeed, it is hard not to perceive a direct line connecting the Final Report in March 2016 of President Faust’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault to the announcement two months later of the first sanctions policy.  That Task Force repeatedly makes the case that it is the all-male Final clubs that pose serious concerns with regard to sexual assault, and that this is mainly possible because they control the space in which many undergraduates socialize (unlike other USGSOs).
My sense is that our current divide has emerged, in part, because of a continual choice to first select one or another of the specific problems caused by the all-male Final clubs and to then develop policies designed to address that problem broadly throughout undergraduate life.  This impulse is understandable—we are, after all, a community that values first articulating our principles and then developing policies that serve them.  When our goal is to achieve a particular outcome (say, the end to all-male Final clubs) we naturally want to start by defining the principles at stake, such as an opposition to gender-based discrimination, and then allow our policies to flow from that principle.  But thus far, this approach has created something of a dragnet, which threatens to sweep in student groups that many of us feel are not much of a problem (or, at least, not nearly as much of a problem as the all-male Final clubs); fraternal organizations without houses in which to host parties and womens’ Final clubs, not to mention the Hasty Pudding, do not really seem to be at the root of campus ills.  It is my own belief personally—and I think the sentiment of many faculty colleagues—that we would have done better to clearly identify what we are trying to achieve, which is an end to the noxious, distorting, and often abhorrent influence of the all-male Final clubs on undergraduate life.  This is surely the point on which the greatest number of us agree; if for no other reason, it would serve well as the starting point for discussions about what policies best achieve our goal.

Which brings us squarely to the second major source of disagreement within our community: regardless of how one answers the question of what goal we ought to be aiming for, there remains an open—and very contentious—question of how best to go about achieving it. 
To date, much of the debate around this issue has been cast a clash between competing values.  On the one hand, our community is committed to inclusion, we fight against discrimination in all its pernicious forms, and we have rightly begun to identify and dismantle the many structures that prevent members of our community from feeling that they belong at Harvard (and that it belongs to them).  On the other hand, we recognize that this set of values is one among many that progressive, well-intentioned individuals espouse.  Another set of such values includes notions of free expression, of individual autonomy, and of the right to free association.  One frame on the current faculty debate concerns how to adjudicate between these values when they conflict with one another.  The choice of some students to socialize off-campus with only certain people acts as a barrier to inclusion and belonging for other students; to whom do our responsibilities lie?  Each of us recognizes that rights (even those enumerated in the law) are not absolute but must be balanced against our responsibilities to one another—thus, the restrictions on free expression that enjoin us from shouting “fire!” in a crowded faculty meeting or the like.  One way of thinking about our current state of division is as a disagreement about whether the hazards posed by the all-male Final clubs and other USGSOs warrants a similar abrogation of (some of) our students’ rights (such as to free and lawful assembly).  [I am, of course, glossing over many nuanced aspects of this point of view, but only because I wish to make the observation below.]
This way of framing the debate tends to bottom out in the question of whether we should intervene against the all-male Final clubs and other USGSOs.  But another way we might have this discussion is by instead asking the question of how we ought to intervene.  What I mean is this: For much of the past 16 months, we have been led to think in binary terms—either we take the extraordinary step of patrolling the off-campus social lives of students, or we wave a white flag of surrender to the status quo and acquiesce as the Final clubs continue to exert an adverse effect on our community.  What is missing from this duality is any substantive discussion of how we might effect meaningful change on the Final clubs through more ordinary means.  The policies of sanctioning USGSO membership surely comprise extraordinary measures: they make extraordinary and unprecedented claims on the private, off-campus lives of our students; implementing them will require a radical reimagining (for many of us) of the relationship between the faculty and its students’ private lives; and they seem (to many of us) to contravene other values that ought to characterize a liberal institution committed to free inquiry and personal transformation.  One index of just how extraordinary these policies seem is the amount of time spent by the USGSO Committee on the question of whether the various sanctions policies are even legal.  Such policies will take us into uncharted places.
Is there nothing short of such extraordinary measures that can bring change to our campus?  The USGSO Committee’s Final Report tells us the answer to this question is no, that we have tried in vain for years to rein in the Final clubs through normal channels.  But a look at what is described suggests that the College’s ordinary attempts have been limited to various forms of “moral suasion,” mainly comprising various meetings between administrators and club leaders and alumni boards.  If the College’s efforts have indeed consisted mostly of an occasional stern talking-to, then we have little reason for surprise at their failure.  Social scientists—economists, sociologists, those in psychology departments and business schools—have learned a great deal about how to change people’s behavior, and we know that “moral suasion” is probably the least effective ways of going about it.  This is why when public health officials aim to decrease cigarette smoking, they do not simply tell people, “Cigarette smoking is bad, you shouldn’t do it.”  Instead, they have waged a sustained campaign to inform consumers of the dangers of smoking; they make it harder for young people to obtain cigarettes; they have worked relentlessly to transform cigarette smoking from something with social cachet into something that borders on shameful and “uncool”; and so on.  No, this has not proven straightforward, and yes, it has taken time and real effort.  But walk around Harvard Square on a Saturday night, and you will struggle to find an (American) student smoking a cigarette, an absence that would have leapt out for its strangeness not all that long ago.
So we might then ask ourselves: Can we use these kinds of techniques to change student behavior regarding the all-male Final clubs and other USGSOs?  Are there no such ordinary means by which to drain these clubs of their vitality (or to “shrivel” them, as a colleague has colorfully put it)?  Again, we have been led to believe not.  But many of us are skeptical of this claim.  Thus, my sense that when we look past the legislative motions and parliamentary maneuvers, the blog posts and leaks to The Crimson, a good deal of opposition to the sanction policies flows from a desire to try—seriously for the first time—to rein in the Final clubs through a full suite of methods that we ordinarily use to change social behavior.[1]  That is, we have not had—but should be having—a full-throated conversation about whether we can reach our shared goals in ways that do not require us to compromise other core institutional values.  I am not convinced we can, but many of us believe it is worth first trying. 
However, any serious attempt to use such “ordinary” measures to undermine the Final clubs’ influence on campus needs to start from an analysis of why exactly they play such an outsized role in campus social life in the first place, and thus what the College must do to drain their vitality.  During the USGSO Committee discussions, we heard, in every meeting, that the Final clubs dominate undergraduate social life precisely because few good on-campus alternatives exist.  A similar point was made manifest in the Implementation Committee’s report: that if the College wants to rob the Final clubs of their appeal, it must start by creating attractive alternative social spaces for undergraduates.  Many of our students want a place to “have fun”—which we would do well to acknowledge means drinking alcohol, acting in mildly transgressive ways, and being out from under the watchful eye of tutors and resident deans.  Wonderful as they are, the Houses do not—and perhaps cannot ever—fully serve that desire.  And although I resist the notion that Harvard College is somehow obliged to administer its students an appropriate dosage of fun (surely, something somewhere in the Boston area caters to the needs of college students?), we should acknowledge that the (real or) perceived lack of alternative spaces for “letting loose” remains a powerful draw of the Final clubs for our students.  Thus, draining energy away from the Final clubs will require that we direct it elsewhere.
Finally, it is impossible not to comment on the current campus morass without also noting the deep and abiding concerns of the Faculty regarding its role in informing College policy.  The implementation of either sanctions policy will permanently reshape the relationship between the faculty and our students (perhaps for the better, perhaps not).  At the same time, however, the specific way in which these policies have been advanced threatens at theh same time to alter the relationship between the Faculty and its Administration.  Many of us—including many of us who would otherwise not be opposed to taking extraordinary measures against the USGSOs—are deeply disturbed by what we view as unprecedented administrative overreach, including the widespread perception that our Administration is committed to avoiding a faculty vote on the proposed policies.  From my conversations with many colleagues, it is hard to overstate how divisive and demoralizing this posture towards the Faculty has been, not least because it could have been avoided in the first place.  In many ways, it is this aspect of our current situation that troubles me most.
One final note, this one of appreciation for my fellow committee members—students, staff, and faculty alike—for their unfailing civility, eloquence, and clarity of thought throughout our discussions; you have been a continual reminder of the things that make Harvard great.  Suzannah Clark deserves special recognition for her thoughtful leadership of the Committee, and for her truly herculean efforts on our behalf. 

Jason Mitchell
Professor of Psychology

[1] As a side note, I object to the Final Report’s characterization that opponents of the sanctions policy “argue that suasion is always better than sanctions” (p. 14).  That statement does not reflect my understanding of the discussion within the Committee, nor do I know any colleagues who traffic in such absolutes.  A more accurate statement might be to suggest that some opponents of the sanction policies are arguing that suasion (or other ordinary measures) are in this instance a better course of action right now than the sanction policies as formulated.

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