Inside Harvard’s Single-Sex Clubs’ Fight to Survive
Final clubs, sororities, and fraternities are pushing back against new rules preventing members from holding student leadership positions and receiving prestigious postgraduate fellowships.
Sealed and slipped under students’ doors, invitations from the fictional “Pigeon” club highlighted inclusion, diversity, and love as core values, with footnoted warnings (“Jews need not apply. Seriously, no fucking Jews. Coloreds OK.”) and a reference to the date rape drug, Rohypnol. “Semi-Bro Attire” was the mandated dress code to the Pigeon’s introductory event.
The invitations were clearly satirizing a reputation of exclusion, elitism, and sexual misconduct among Harvard’s infamous final clubs, but they hit a nerve.
Evelynn Hammonds, who was Dean of the College at the time, called the flyers “deeply disturbing... hurtful and offensive to many students, faculty and staff,” and the school launched an investigation to find and punish their anonymous creators.
Four years later, Harvard is now cracking down on the clubs themselves, largely because they remain bastions of privilege.
Announced last Friday, the new policy prohibits members of Harvard’s unrecognized single-sex social clubs—final clubs, sororities, and fraternities—from holding student leadership positions and receiving prestigious postgraduate fellowships.
“In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community,” Rakesh Khurana, the college dean, wrote in a statement to the community.
Neither Khurana’s office nor the university’s spokesperson returned multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
The administration now faces considerable backlash from affiliates of Harvard’s final clubs and members of its Greek organizations, who must choose between going co-ed or sacrificing leadership and fellowship opportunities. Members of Harvard’s fraternities and sororities have been particularly critical of the new policy, which will go into effect in the fall of 2017.
According to The Crimson, fraternities and sororities faced “relatively little administrative pressure to update their membership policies” compared to Harvard’s eight all-male and five all-female final clubs.
Harvard’s all-male final clubs have been intensely scrutinized in recent years, even more so after the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention issued a report in March that linked sexual assault on campus to Harvard’s semi-secret clubs.
On Monday, more than 200 women staged a protest on campus against the sanctions, with many graduate final club leaders and sorority members claiming they don’t deserve collateral damage from an initiative targeting sexual assault and “power imbalances” on campus, as Dean Khurana put it—especially given that “the most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men.”
Indeed, Harvard’s all-female final clubs are younger than its all-male clubs, which thus have more financial resources and own expensive private property near campus.
Speaking to The Daily Beast, several graduate members of Harvard’s three sororities—Kappa Kappa Gamma, Delta Gama, and Kappa Alpha Theta—vehemently denied that their organizations were any more exclusive or privileged than Harvard at large.
“My Theta sisters were talented, dynamic, and diverse—not just in terms of geographical background and ethnicity but also in terms of religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs, and life experiences,” said Caroleene Dobson, who graduated from Harvard in 2009.
Having grown up in a small town in southern Alabama, Dobson found Harvard to be isolating and competitive during her freshman year.
Philanthropy was important to her, and while there were many community service avenues at Harvard, she was drawn to sororities because philanthropy was integrated in their social culture.
While she and her sisters came from different backgrounds, their “shared philanthropy and friendship united us and created a support network that helped me through all the challenges of attending one of the most elite colleges in the country,” she said.
Dobson and other sorority members also noted that, unlike the all-female final clubs, their sororities are part of national organizations and therefore can’t go co-ed even if they wanted to. And if they separated from those national organizations, they’d lose significant funding and access to an invaluable network of women outside of Harvard.
“I’m very disappointed that the school would discourage women from joining what for me was an organization about women’s empowerment and building lasting connections that transcend the Harvard bubble,” said a recent graduate and former president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Not everyone can qualify for sports teams and other competitive groups at Harvard,” she added.
Earlier this week, the National Panhelenic Conference, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, and the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations released a joint statement urging Harvard to reconsider the new policy, which denies students “the basic right of free association,” they argue, and “penalizes them for involvement in fraternities and sororities—experiences that foster leadership, personal growth, and the very sense of engagement college is designed to create.”
Even students who aren’t affiliated with single-sex clubs at Harvard have spoken out against the new policy.
Aaron Slipper, a sophomore who wrote a widely-distributed essay criticizing the sanctions, said that while he agrees that Harvard’s all-female social groups have been disproportionately affected, he fundamentally objects to the administration punishing and blacklisting any social group because it doesn’t respect that group's values.
“I don’t think it’s right for Harvard to declare war on certain cultures or types of people,” he said. “I also think it’s interesting that the university is entirely open about the fact that it is applying these punitive measures to institutions whose values it finds to be ‘antiquated.’”
Like many others, he believes that students have a right to associate freely.
Indeed, a graduate member of Harvard’s all-male Fly Club and a national spokesperson for Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity have said that while they hope to negotiate a compromise with the university, they are working with lawyers and may consider taking legal action.
Harvey Silverglate, a defense attorney who specializes in civil liberties and academic freedom, said that Harvard’s single-sex clubs certainly may have legal recourse if they choose to challenge university authorities.
Silvergate noted that under common law doctrine, “Massachusetts has decided in a number of cases in the state supreme court and lower courts that private associations have an obligation to provide a minimal level of fairness, decency, and fair dealing to its members.
“If one of these clubs were to sue that its freedom of association and its private, off-campus status were being threatened by the university and that the university had reneged on its obligation to treat the students in these clubs with a minimal level of fairness and rationality, there’s more than a 50 percent chance that the court would interfere.”