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With disappointing vote, Harvard faculty officially reject freedom of association

Harvard faculty on Tuesday voted down a motion meant to counteract the illiberal administrative blacklist of student members of exclusive, off-campus single gender social clubs like fraternities and sororities. That policy has weathered intense criticism and been through several iterations — including a most-recent version that suggested punishing students for joining any exclusive, off-campus club — since the policy was first introduced in May 2016.

The faculty motion that might have stopped it failed at Tuesday night’s Harvard faculty meeting by 130 votes to 90.

The motion’s failure represents a significant setback for the state of civil liberties at Harvard, particularly because Harvard faculty had nearly two years to consider it.

The motion was first introduced by professor Harry R. Lewis, a computer science pioneer and former dean of Harvard College, soon after the blacklist policy was announced. It read in relevant part that Harvard would not “discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal.” Functionally, it would have protected the freedom of association that Harvard has long promised its students.

Administrators delayed the faculty vote on the motion several times until Lewis pulled it altogether in December 2016, after Dean of Harvard College (and sanctions architect) Rakesh Khurana suggested he would reconsider, announcing a “faculty committee” to “revise or replace” the policy.

But hope for civil liberties advocates like Lewis and FIRE was short-lived: The committee Khurana empaneled was led by Khurana himself and predominantly composed of administrators rather than faculty. The group ultimately (and unsurprisingly) recommended even harsher sanctions and expanded the proscribed list of verboten organizations to include all “exclusive” social clubs, regardless of single gender or co-ed status.

Lewis subsequently reintroduced his motion. It was finally debated and voted on Tuesday night, with professors, including Lewis himself, arguing for the motion, and other professors and administrators arguing against it.

Lewis published the statement he made before the faculty on his personal blog. He urged the faculty to consider the realities of how the policy will impact the Harvard student experience and the quality of a Harvard education:

It has been said that we need to be idealistic, to create the best possible environment for our students. But idealism is not the same as utopianism.  The history of utopian undertakings is not encouraging. Utopias have an official version of social harmony and tend to punish nonconformists. Students come to Harvard not for a social utopia, but for a liberal education in all its tensions and complexity, an education that teaches them how to use the freedom they enjoy, with advice but without coercion.

Administrators have only proved over the past two years that such a “utopia” is indeed out of reach, Lewis noted, given that Harvard has already had to adapt and walk-back the ill-conceived policy several times.

“Through all this time,” Lewis said, “the rationales for punishing every member of an expanding list of clubs kept shifting, from sexual assault to gender discrimination to exclusivity.”

Lewis also referenced an open letter published on his blog on Monday, signed by nearly two dozen undergraduate women in support of the motion, who wrote “the question women students are asking today was never addressed: why are members of women’s groups to be punished at all?”

(The answer is that banning only the male clubs would violate Title IX, and we suspect that Harvard, in their mission to destroy the male final clubs, sees these young women’s clubs as acceptable collateral damage. But, of course, Harvard can never admit that publicly.)

Speaking against the motion at the meeting, The Crimson reported that “Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67 stepped up to the microphone, arguing that the clubs create a toxic and exclusive environment on campus. Dingman added that while he was a member of a final club as an undergraduate, their role on campus has since changed.”

The dean’s recollection that his final club was a more enlightened place in the 1960s than it is today is interesting but implausible, given that Harvard itself didn’t become fully co-ed until a decade after he graduated. It is also both condescending and insulting to imply that today’s college students can’t be trusted with the rights that he enjoyed during his time as a student.

But with the motion’s failure — a win for a Harvard administration dedicated to unilaterally micromanaging students’ social lives — that’s precisely the message they’re sending.

FIRE is extremely grateful for all of professor Lewis’ work fighting these sanctions. Harvard students are extraordinarily lucky to have dedicated faculty like him, David Haig, Steven Pinker, and FIRE board member Rich Losick going to bat for them.

As discouraging as this development is, the process is not over.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, an alumna and board member of the proudly and exclusively single-sex Bryn Mawr College, has yet to announce which recommendation she will be pursuing as policy. We hope that she will take the fact that 90 faculty members voted in opposition to any sanctions very seriously.

Harvard’s administration is most likely the most powerful administrative body in academia — as well as the least accountable. They have even been exposed for spying on faculty email (metadata “only,” so they said) without permission and without any real repercussions. Voting against a measure so politically critical to president Faust and dean Khurana is therefore no small thing. FIRE wants to make it crystal clear that if a Harvard faculty member suspects that he or she is being retaliated against in any way for his or her vote in support of freedom of association, they should most certainly contact us immediately. FIRE is here to support you and will do so tirelessly.

It is crucial that students, faculty, and alumni who understand the dangers of this policy do not bow to pressure or develop a fatalistic attitude. Your activism is needed now more than ever. You can make a difference. Write to Harvard today by entering your information below. Speak out and demand that Harvard abandon this illiberal pursuit — one that will negatively impact generations of future Harvard students.

FIRE will continue to fight this fight, and we hope that you will join us.

Tell President Faust To Restore Freedom of Association at Harvard

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