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Don’t be fooled, Harvard is not ‘back-pedaling’

This past Saturday, a Boston Globe headline caught our attention: “Harvard panel back-pedals on social club ban after backlash.” Our excitement was short-lived upon reading the article, which detailed that a new report has been presented to the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, detailing three options. This isn’t “back-pedaling”; this is just the latest tactic from Harvard’s administration — and to our disappointment, it seems to be working.

In May 2016, Faust (who sits on the board of female-only Bryn Mawr College) and Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, announced that members of off-campus single-gender social organizations, including fraternities, sororities, and final clubs, would be subject to a blacklist and sanctions, barring them from certain prestigious scholarships and leadership positions across campus.

This policy was met with opposition from the faculty, who had not been consulted, and under whose authority student discipline falls. Harry R. Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, filed a motion to counteract the sanctions policy, which he later withdrew after Khurana announced in January 2017 that a faculty committee would be formed to “revise or replace” the policy.

This turned out to be a political maneuver; Khurana ultimately appointed himself to co-chair the faculty committee to review his own policy. As it turned out, “faculty committee” ended up being a complete misnomer as well, since only a minority of the committee turned out to be faculty, and only a small minority of them were critics of the sanctions policy.

We were accordingly unsurprised when the “faculty committee” released its report in July 2017 detailing “strong majority support” for an even more extreme policy. Under this new policy, members of those clubs wouldn’t just lose opportunities, they would receive punishments up to suspension and expulsion. And this was for members of any “exclusionary” social club, not just those that are single-gender.

We were, however, shocked when The Crimson reported that at the only vote taken, the option that the report claimed had “strong majority support” on the committee had in fact received only seven votes from 27 members on the committee, and was in fact the third-place option. Khurana’s only known comment on this apparent dishonesty was to decry the anonymous whistleblower for breaching the confidentiality of the committee. (Seriously.)

Now, as the Boston Globe has reported, that committee has released a new “Final Report” report offering three options among which they suggest Faust choose. The three options are:

  1. the total ban of all exclusive groups from the July 2017 committee report; 
  2. the original May 2016 blacklist policy; or 
  3. a hodgepodge of alternatives to either 1 or 2 that, in the committee’s words, are “not intended to form a cohesive whole or outline a specific policy.”

One gets the impression that the third option is not seriously offered compared to the other two.

If you took elementary psychology (or perhaps one of Khurana’s classes at Harvard Business School) you might recognize this as the “door-in-the-face” strategy, where you ask for something outrageous first, so that whoever you’re asking it from is inclined to see your second ask, which is what you really want, as more reasonable by comparison.

What’s sad is that this rudimentary tactic seems to have worked: Judging by the Boston Globe article, some may now look to the original sanctions as a reasonable compromise. The profoundly disturbing result of the committee’s preliminary report is that the committee effectively shifted the debate from one where members of the community are deciding whether or not they will accept giving up their freedom of association, to one where they are debating how much they are willing to give up.

Make no mistake: neither option 1 or 2 is reasonable or acceptable. Faust and Khurana compromising with Faust and Khurana is no compromise at all.  The “back-pedaling” is illusory, nothing but a deft sleight of hand.

Harvard is as close as ever to imposing illiberal sanctions and ending its students’ right to freedom of association. We hope students and faculty at Harvard can see through this ploy and refuse to take the bait. Their continued opposition is necessary now more than ever.

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