Then They Came for the Frats . . .
Harvard’s suppression of freedom of association represents a new extension of elite academic intolerance.
Harvard University’s planned crackdown on “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” (i.e., fraternities and sororities, or “final clubs”) wasfinalized last month, 33 years after the clubs agreed to sever all ties with the university. The final clubs have been entirely independent of the college since then, receiving no funding or access to facilities, communications systems, or student or alumni lists.
The new policy, first announced in May 2016 and to be implemented next semester, goes beyond disestablishing the clubs; it will actively punish their members. Students who join these unaffiliated groups will be banned from holding leadership positions on athletic teams or other recognized college organizations—and they will be denied required endorsement letters for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships and other prestigious post-graduate fellowships, even if they meet all the criteria for these honors. And if these measures don’t bring the single-sex organizations to heel, Harvard president Drew Faust warned, the next step could be an outright ban on membership, under threat of expulsion.
The policy was originally touted as a response to sexual assault, but then, when statistical studies found that such assault was no more common at final clubs than in dormitories, the rationale shifted to both “gender inclusivity” and an even more ambiguous goal to “uphold the institution’s core values of inclusion and non-discrimination . . . along a broad range of axes, ranging from issues of gender identity to socioeconomic background to race and ethnicity.”
In other words, what Harvard is planning, in a stunning bit of authoritarianism, is to punish students for their membership in independent, off-campus groups that Harvard considers to be “at odds with our values.” But, as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) co-founder and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate notes, under Harvard’s reasoning, the university could take the same action against members of the Young Republican Club or the Catholic Church—or, in an admittedly alternative universe, against Democrats, Unitarians, or members of gay rights groups.
How will Harvard enforce this new policy, since, as Charles Lane of theWashington Post points out, the single-sex organizations don’t publish their membership lists? The details remain to be worked out, but an implementation committee recommended last spring that students seeking fellowships or on-campus leadership positions sign a McCarthyite affirmation that they are not now and have not been (for at least a year) a member of a prohibited organization. The college Honor Council would investigate students who “falsely affirm compliance.”