About 30 percent of Harvard’s 6,500 undergraduates belong to one of six all-male final clubs, five all-female final clubs, and nine single-sex fraternities and sororities. The clubs have enjoyed resurgent popularity on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus in recent years. For many, they are the hub of social life and fun. But Harvard University’s Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations (CUSGSO)—cunningly titled, with a Soviet lilt—has banned clubs entirely, finito, the nuclear option.
Back in 2016, Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust and her point man, college dean Rakesh Khurana, crafted an explicit anti-club policy that imposed sanctions with penalties designed to drive the clubs out of business. Alumni objected, while the student body voted overwhelmingly to repeal the policy. Instead of dialing back, CUSGSO now recommends that Harvard’s policies take a more radical turn. This isn’t surprising since Faust has made diversity and inclusion a presidential theme since her ascension in 2007. The governing Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers, in which enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion seems undiminished, have closely coached Faust and Khurana.
Faust recently announced she would step down at the end of 2018. She leaves a campus struggling to implement her diversity programs and now riven by the highly controversial ban. For years, Faust had highlighted the pressing need to combat sexual assault, elitism, and rowdy club parties; when these claims proved flimsy, she turned to “gender exclusivity as the clubs’ irreducible sin,” as former college dean Harry R. Lewis pointedly observed, writing in The Washington Post.
Asserting that single-gender groups perpetuate structural barriers to women in higher education, Faust made clear just how serious a sin it is. “I want Harvard to nurture the belief that you never should settle for second-class citizenship—or for an identity fashioned out of the arbitrary exclusion of others,” she declared. While acknowledging that fraternities, sororities, and final clubs are not formally recognized by the college, she complained that “they play an unmistakable and growing role in student life, in many cases enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values. The college cannot ignore these organizations if it is to advance our shared commitment to broadening opportunity and making Harvard a campus for all of its students.”
In truth, Harvard officials needn’t burden themselves with concerns about broadening opportunity for its students. The 97-percent-residential campus is a model of mixed, diverse high-performers. But Faust’s crusade poses a deeper question: Where does campus policing of private behavior and association end? Where does thought control begin?
The defenders of Harvard’s clubs say proscription abuses freedom of association and privacy, particularly since they have no affiliation with the university. Hence, say their defenders, their existence is none of Harvard’s business. “Using ‘nondiscrimination’ as a cudgel against students’ private associations is odiously patronizing,” said former dean Lewis in his Post article. He characterized the Harvard assault on the clubs as “McCarthyesque.”
Now it is true that college social life tends to favor the extroverted and attractive. Money, athleticism, wit, and cool moves help socially also, as does a winning personality. They make one a sought-after club prospect. In the real world human preference resists the diversity baroque of our times. A prepped-out background in itself counts for nothing. But for club haters—and they are legion—it’s always 1900 and the painful tyranny of St. Grottlesex never ends.
Faust, steeped in this mindset, isn’t above playing the race card. She shamelessly compared freedom-of-association arguments used by clubs and alumni with the tactics of Southern racists to preserve segregated schools. “Freedom of association is a concept that was used widely in the white South to combat Brown v. Board, to combat the Civil Rights Act. It’s an argument that has been used to sustain and support discrimination,” she argued. “It gives me chills to see it used in this instance as a defense of what I see as exclusionary policies on the part of organizations in the College.” Her declaration betrayed ignorance of a crucial civil rights case in which the NAACP was finally, thanks to freedom of assembly, allowed to organize in a state where it had been banned.
But what’s spooky are Faust’s chills. The chill of racism, the patriarchy, and the cis-het American past apparently give Harvard’s historian president the shivers. With names like Porcellian and Owl, well-endowed vestiges of white male privilege persist in her own backyard.
The onus for the club fiasco falls mainly on Harvard College dean Khurana, who calls gender-based organizations agents of “exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.” The “discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances,” Khurana argues. “The most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men. 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.”
This is sanctimonious nonsense, of course. But Khurana is a master of the new academic catechism. On taking office in 2014, he praised Black Lives Matter and said: “The diversity of our student body at Harvard College should be on the forefront of this paradigm shift. If we are to fulfill our mission of educating citizens and citizen-leaders for our world, the College must create a community that allows each of our students to experience fundamental lessons that are intellectually, socially, and personally transformative.”
One wonders: What does he mean by paradigm shift and transformative? What precisely needs to be transformed? Raising the ante from mere inclusion to belonging, the Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging is eager to change Harvard’s “symbolic repertoire,” on the premise that legacy Harvard had a “certain commonality that is no longer the case.” The Task Force started this spring by writing the Puritans out of the alma mater.
Conviction is not entirely missing. But opportunists leverage institutional guiding principles to their own benefit. The axioms of diversity and inclusion are deeply ingrained at Harvard and other tony liberal-arts institutions. But diversity of thought is rare. If any weeds of originality or dissent somehow manage to spring up, they promptly get doused with academic DDT.
Faust and Khurana stand to profit immensely from the transformation and paradigm shift heralded by the dean. Above all, they get to be moral exemplars, members in good standing in the final club of political correctness. And the pay for high-toned transformations and paradigm shifts is good. Faust’s 2015 income was reported at more than $1.4 million, with retention incentives, up from just over $800,000 the previous year.
This is not a bad haul for a change agent departing amid intramural quarrels of her own making. The club ban has heightened campus friction and could ignite an internal war involving every part—students, faculty, and alumni—of a great university.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.