One brisk fall night, my friends and I donned ties and blazers in anticipation. An all-male final club had invited us to an event and dictated our evening’s attire. Dozens of young men populated the small backyard of the turn-of-the-century club house. Food, beer, and handshakes fueled the buzz of nervous socializing. The Club wanted me, and it felt good to be wanted.
Over a year later, I have difficulty fathoming the thought of having been so excited at the prospect of membership in the exclusive Club. The culture I encountered repelled me, overwhelming a strong predisposition to embrace the group. Now, the Club finds itself in Harvard University’s crosshairs, one of the many “single-gender social organizations” whose members the university will prohibit from leading other campus organizations and athletic teams and refuse to recommend for prestigious scholarships. I’m with Harvard in believing the Club and others like it don’t represent the best of Harvard’s culture. But I stand with the clubs when it comes to supporting their members’ right to free association, no matter my own judgment of the clubs’ merits. I must, if I want to stand up for my free association rights as well.
This is an unexpected position for me to occupy, for my relationship with this particular club is much more personal than that of most of my peers. My dad—my hero—had been in the Club of the early 1980s. He arrived as a Michigan boy from an outsized family without much money, foreign to the society of Harvard. He didn’t seek to be in a final club, but when he and his pals were “punched,” he kept an open mind and joined. The other members—of different creeds, colors, and sexualities—proved an intellectual, jovial, and welcoming group. Nobody was pressured to drink, and no desire to exclude challenged the ideal of companionship. Silly jokes punctuated sweeping conversations about politics, literature, and society. Many friendships forged in the Club have withstood time, but one particular relationship cultivated there bears incomparable personal value for me. My mother was a frequent guest of my father at the Club, and my parents held their wedding reception there. Some 30 years later, beer soaked the ground my mother’s wedding dress once grazed, but I didn’t mind because I wanted in.
It had taken some labor on my part to convince my buddies to give it a chance, but one by one they left before me. Some were turned off by the drinking, others by their encounters with members, others by the persistent accounts of late-night indiscretion at the clubs. Whatever the reasons, it wasn’t their scene. But I stayed. Being in the Club with my friends would have been great, but membership was a personal goal.
Whether they lost interest or didn’t make the Club’s cut, many of the guys from the first night were absent from the next event, a picnic. By dinner I would join them in their happy non-affiliation. I can’t recall there being any non-white people at the picnic, save for the black bus driver. Contemporary members of the Club insulted each other and treated the driver and bartender with disdain. I felt a heavy pressure on us recruits to drink, and interest in discussing art or news was at best muted, but likely nonexistent. In fact, the mere presence of a pigskin effectively squelched discourse of any stripe. I tried to break up a fight, and I was looked at as a pariah for my attempted peacemaking. These men were not like my father. But I was. So I didn’t return to the Club.
My experience with the Club was brief, and some others no doubt came away with different and more favorable impressions. Their time with the Club may show it to have attributes that weren’t on display to me. Nonetheless, my experience left a bad taste. But Harvard’s actions against it leave a worse one. I can tell you firsthand that these clubs can paint an unflattering portrait of Harvard students. But their members have a right to each other’s company. A club can, at different times, consist of vastly different people with vastly different beliefs. Their character can change, and if I had joined the Club it would have been to change it for the better—but I would nonetheless be punished. Is there a difference between being in the final club of today and your neighborhood volunteer organization? Yes. I know which one I place more value on, anyway. But in an important way these groups are the same: They exist because their members choose to associate with each other. Their simple act, association, should not be punished. Members of any group deserve the same protection from such misplaced penalty.
Some might find solace in the fact that Harvard’s rule targets only “social organizations.” However, if Harvard is allowed to punish individuals for being in one off-campus group, they will be empowered to punish them for being part of any off-campus group: the Communist Party of China, the Catholic Church, the Republican Party, your high school alumni association, the FIRE Student Network, Twitter’s board of directors, the NAACP. Now that Harvard has an institutionalized machinery for the sanction of individuals on the basis of association, why should we expect it won’t feel empowered and entitled to wield its weapon again, against a different victim?
Let the case of the final clubs caution those who would cheer on the administration that seeks to dismember them. The fluidity of university leaders’ understanding of Harvard “community standards” is not merely hypothetical but a matter of record; Harvard is not the preacher’s school it once was. The administrators of today and their brand of paternalism could be replaced by a generation of administrators harboring deep antipathy toward groups and beliefs now considered normal and good, and armed with their predecessors’ tools to limit freedom. Whether you think the final clubs should be broken up or not, allowing administrators to pick and choose who can associate with whom is incompatible with the principles of a free society.
Tim Devine is a FIRE summer intern.