Most people see Harvard as the ultimate elite institution. Not just an elite academic institution, but the ultimate of elite institutions, period. It’s hard to name all the people who entered Harvard Yard eager to make a difference, and ended up literally changing the world. So, when something happens within those hallowed halls, observers well outside of the red-bricked ivy tower take notice. And they sure took plenty of notice last week when Harvard recommended forbidding its students from joining exclusive groups, so-called final clubs, sororities and fraternities. In a 22-page faculty committee report, the clubs are said to encourage a culture that is discriminatory and an environment for sexual assault. Harvard will discipline students who violate the policy.
If the new policy is implemented, the clubs will be phased out by May of 2022 — a big deal because Harvard’s final clubs are the crème de la crème of already exclusive private social clubs which have long been an integral part of the university’s cultural history. There are female final clubs, but the most well-known and the oldest are still all-male. I should note that these traditional all-male clubs are not sanctioned by the university, and they also have been pressured by Harvard to become co-ed.
Two years ago, the Fox Club upended tradition and offered provisional membership to women. But, other final clubs did not follow suit. Charles Storey, an alum of the Porcellian Club — Harvard’s most prestigious — last year described the pressure to become co-ed as “McCarthyism.” Storey also pointed out in the Harvard Crimson that “forcing single-gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.” And members of the all-female final clubs worried that co-ed clubs would undermine opportunities for women’s leadership. That will no longer be an issue; the Fox Club just voted to revoke provisional membership to women.
I was struck by the club’s apparent serious internal fighting, which mostly divided along generational lines. The graduate, or alum Fox Club members, were always firmly opposed to changing tradition, while the undergraduate members pushed for it. The same kind of generational tension which sparked another national controversy — this time among the mostly older Allied War Veterans, sponsors of Southie’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. You’ll recall this year that the older members reinstated the group’s ban against gay veteran marchers. Public pressure, led by younger members, forced a reversal.
Affinity groups, per se, don’t concern me. I am a graduate of a single-sex college and a member of a black sorority. Both welcome engagement from others, and for both, exclusivity is not the purpose — support is. It does concern me when the stated rationale and reasons of organizations like the Porcellian Club and Allied War Veterans is to harm nonmembers.
Why should we care about the tiny privileged groups which exist inside Harvard’s small elite circle? Because it’s Harvard. And when Harvard speaks — either by edict or cultural shift — the world, well beyond the academy, listens.