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A Messy End to the Semester: Harvard, Blacklisting, and Curtailing Student Rights

By May 17, 2016

Earlier this month, Harvard University announced that students who are members of independent, single-sex organizations off campus will be ineligible for Rhodes and Marshall scholarship recommendations from the dean. The university also prohibited recognized student organizations and athletic teams from choosing these students as their leaders. The rationale? Harvard wants to promote “inclusion” and “address deeply rooted gender attitudes.”

As FIRE noted in our letter to Harvard, this attack on students’ freedom of association amounts to nothing more than a blacklist. And, as if that weren’t enough, Harvard’s actions are also inconsistent with its own prior statements.

So, what’s happened since Harvard announced its illiberal plan? Among other things, many within the Harvard community have spoken out strongly against the administration’s decision. The Boston Globe, for example, reports:

More than 200 female Harvard University students pushed back Monday [May 9, 2016] against a new policy to discourage participation in single-gender clubs at the Ivy League school, a move that will affect sororities and other women’s groups.

During a raucous rally on Harvard Yard, student demonstrators from an organization dubbed the Crimson Women’s Coalition used a hockey stick to unfurl a banner across the facade of a campus building that read, “Hear Her Harvard.”

These women, the Globe explains, believe the university is doing them a disservice by targeting all-female sororities and women’s clubs, which is ironic given Harvard’s declared goal of promoting gender equity. Indeed, the Globe article notes that their slogans included “Women’s Groups Keep Women Safe.”

The Harvard Undergraduate Council, meanwhile, released its own statement. In it, its elected leaders say:

As leaders of an entirely elected council of representatives, our first and foremost priority is ensuring that student voice, no matter the opinion, is heard and respected. Vetting of elected members of student government based on affiliation in certain groups is detrimental, and fundamentally opposed, to the vivacity of the democratic process.

So, in addition to limiting the freedom of association of students, Harvard is also harming students who are not in single-sex, off-campus organizations by interfering with their ability to elect their own leaders.

Unsurprisingly, The Harvard Crimson reports that final clubs are considering legal action. Likewise, in a joint statement reported by the Crimson, the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference—which oversee fraternities and sororities, respectively—warned that litigation was an option if a negotiated settlement were not forthcoming.

Sasha Volokh reports at The Volokh Conspiracy that a slate of candidates for Harvard’s top governing body, the Board of Overseers, responded to Harvard’s actions by stating, in part:

We are appalled and dismayed by the Harvard University administration’s attack on the freedom of association of members of all-male and all-female off-campus clubs, fraternities, and sororities. … The Harvard administration has way, way overreached, and is teaching a lesson not about honoring and respecting difference of perspective and preferences, but on how power can be abused to enforce monolithic ways of thinking and living.

The Harvard administration, for its part, remains committed to its decision. Though the end of the semester is here, and students are returning home for the summer, FIRE hopes Harvard will rethink its plan and respect student rights moving forward.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Blacklisting of Final Club, Fraternity, and Sorority Students