Editorials

Pro-Con: Does Harvard’s ban on fraternities and sororities violate students’ rights?

In this March 7, 2017 file photo, rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard College campus in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University will ban all student fraternities, sororities and single-gender clubs by 2022.
In this March 7, 2017 file photo, rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard College campus in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University will ban all student fraternities, sororities and single-gender clubs by 2022. AP

Yes: Harvard's new rule replaces free thinkers with goose steppers

Harvard, like many elite universities, has become increasingly intolerant. It has sought, through a series of administrative decisions, to substitute its own values for the individual moral consciences of its students and to punish those who stray from the university’s narrow dogma.

Most recently, Harvard moved to ban all exclusive social clubs, including fraternities and sororities, by 2022.

Despite Harvard’s promises that student rights are of primary importance on campus, the proposal would deprive students of their fundamental right to freedom of association, enshrined in the First Amendment.

Ultimately, Harvard’s decision to punish students who are members of such organizations, which choose members based on gender, comes down to a difference of opinion about values.

President Drew Faust explained in a 2016 letter that Harvard’s commitment to having “a truly inclusive community” was one of the university’s “deepest values.”

Faust, who recently announced she will step down as Harvard’s president July 1, also asserted that gender is an “arbitrary” distinction between individuals.

Harvard’s position, then, is to punish students who disagree, in practice, with the university’s progressive position on gender difference. This is the definition of intolerance.

But Harvard’s position on exclusive social clubs is just one example. Harvard has multiple illiberal policies in place that punish students and faculty for unpopular speech and imperil their individual freedom.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given Harvard a “Red Light” rating for their policies, which means that the institution has at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” But in fact, it has several.

One such regulation requires student organizations to obtain approval from Harvard’s Office of Student Life prior to distributing printed materials anywhere on campus.

This means that student groups that want to advertise events, find new members or hand out literature must have the content of their messages approved before taking any action.

At a public university, such a policy would be unconstitutional censorship. At Harvard, it is yet another example of administrative intolerance.

Harvard’s intolerance was also on display last year when the school used its power to police private communication between individuals. Before the beginning of the fall semester, the university rescinded admission to 10 incoming freshmen students because of the students’ involvement in a private group chat where they created and exchanged “obscene” memes.

Also in 2016, the university chose to punish the entire men’s cross country team for “crude” comments made by past team members.

Harvard placed the team on athletic probation for sometimes-explicit comments, made years ago in privately circulated documents, about the women’s team.

Harvard also punished the men’s soccer team because of lewd — but private — annual “scouting reports” in which players rated the appearance of female soccer recruits.

For that offense, the university canceled the team’s games for the year and initiated a Title IX investigation.

To be sure, the students in all three cases made poor choices. But Harvard’s decision to punish them for insensitive private jokes is another attempt to force others to conform — not only in their actions but in their private conversations — with the university’s own subjective values.

Tolerance of opinions one does not agree with is a linchpin of civil society and liberal education. A university cannot pursue truth, invite inquiry, or encourage the personal and moral development of students in an environment of intolerance.

John Stuart Mill said it best in On Liberty: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Harvard’s actions and policies have shown that the university values conformity over debate and narrow dogma over open inquiry. Harvard’s intolerance has caused it to abandon the most fundamental mission of education: the pursuit of truth.

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Raleigh, N.C., and serves on the North Carolina Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

No: Harvard's outgoing president hit a bull's-eye when she banned single-sex social clubs

Harvard president Drew Faust has ordered that single-sex social clubs begin allowing both men and women to join.

This includes a handful of fraternities and sororities as well as a set of similar organizations called Final Clubs, historically elite institutions to which some of the most powerful men in the U.S. have belonged.

The decision came after an investigation found strong evidence that the male-only organizations nurtured “cultures that reflect male control,” “the marginalization of women” and “sexual entitlement.”

The decision, in other words, is about addressing the problems caused by male-only organizations, and thus I focus my attention on that.

Should the president of Harvard penalize social clubs that do not allow women?

Defenders of such organizations say that excluding women isn’t about superiority, but difference. They say that it’s meaningful for men to be in male-only spaces in order to develop specifically masculine self-concepts.

Such self-concepts, they say, are necessary because men’s self-esteem depends on differentiating themselves from women. But it’s not because we think men are better, they say.

Oh, really?

It’s funny because such men are perfectly happy to have women in their male-only spaces if those women take on subordinate roles. Finally, clubs ensure there are women to hit on at parties, fraternities are happy to have “little sisters”, and I will place a hearty bet that both allow women as cooks and maids. They just don’t want women to be members.

This is not about sexism, they say; we just don’t want any women here except as sex objects, cheerleaders and servants.

Their selective inclusion of women reveals a more nefarious process than differentiation. By refusing to engage with women as equals, these organizations are engaging in dehumanization. Their actions reinforce the idea that men are the important, valuable, significant humans and women are something else.

As a measure, consider that for Harvard women, the single biggest risk factor for sexual assault is entering a Final Club. By their senior year, 47 percent of women who have done so report having been assaulted.

Most sexual assaults occur in the dormitories, but Final Clubs are the second most common location. This is stunning considering that women live in the dorms and are rarely allowed to even enter the Final Clubs. Participating in Greek life is almost as dangerous.

Separate, they say. But equal? No. These statistics reflect how male-only organizations encourage men not just to identify as men, but to disidentify with women: to see women as an out-group, a pawn perhaps, in a game between men, but not people as important, valuable and significant as they.

By allowing them to persist in regulating women to a subordinate class, we all but ensure that they will fail to be able to see women’s full humanity.

These men become some of the most powerful people in the world. They run our companies, ascend our political hierarchies and control our media.

If they’re allowed to segregate themselves from women during college, why would we expect them to make a place for women as equals in the worlds they later control?

Ending the sex-exclusivity of these organizations is not just resisting the regulation of women to second-class status at Harvard, it’s ending the university’s complicity with the persistence of sexism writ large.

In the aftermath of the election of an unapologetic misogynist to the U.S. presidency and revelations about the discomforting, grotesque and violent treatment women receive from some men at work, we are beginning a conversation about the costs of some men’s dehumanization of women.

Women have responded with #metoo, the Women’s Marches, and an incredible post-election surge of 30,000 women running for office. Women are announcing that they’ve had enough. I’m encouraged that the president of Harvard is among them.

Lisa Wade is an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her latest book is “American Hookup: The New culture of Sex on Campus.”Readers may write her at 127 Swan Hall, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA 90041.

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