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FIRE Q&A: Harvard sorority president Rebecca Ramos

Since it was first announced a year ago, FIRE has repeatedly criticized numerous aspects of Harvard University’s plan to sanction members of off-campus, single-gender clubs. The proposal would institute a Communist-era blacklist, barring students in all-male or all-female social organizations like fraternities and sororities from leadership roles in campus clubs, preventing them from captaining sports teams, rendering them ineligible for prestigious scholarship recommendations, and more.

While apparently intended to target the controversial, unofficial Harvard men’s final clubs and curb both gender-based inequality and sexual assault on campus, the blanket ban has drawn the ire of a number of student groups, particularly sororities. They argue that the ill-conceived plan, drafted without their input, could do more harm than good for Harvard women.

Harvard senior Rebecca Ramos, outgoing president of a sorority and outspoken Greek life advocate, stopped by FIRE’s Washington, D.C., office last week while she was in town for a meeting of the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee. She told FIRE more about why Harvard’s plan is misguided, how fraternities and sororities nationwide benefit the greater good, and why she decided to take her advocacy to Capitol Hill.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FIRE: Hi, Rebecca. Tell FIRE readers why you’re here in D.C. this week.

Rebecca Ramos: I’m here on behalf of the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, in conjunction with the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, and we are here to lobby on Capitol Hill for sorority and fraternity rights for individual students across the country, as well as for non-Greeks who can also benefit from the things we’re advocating for.

One of the main reasons I’m here is to protect our single-sex status.

FIRE: Why should this matter to folks who maybe weren’t in fraternities and sororities in college and don’t know much about what these groups do? What makes fraternities and sororities special?

Ramos: That’s a great question.

Sororities and fraternities have enormous benefits for their members. Not just in terms of providing inclusive and safe spaces on campus, but in extending support academically, personally, and in every aspect of members’ lives.

But these organizations have a really positive impact in the greater community, too.

For example, my sorority works extensively with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Every year, particularly around the Boston Marathon, we partner with runners who are coming from across the country and our sisters will lead them around Boston and give them a tour, or make sure that they can find their hotel, or even run as sighted guides in training for the marathon or during the marathon to allow them to participate to the fullest extent—

FIRE: Wait. You guys run with blind people in the Boston Marathon? That’s commitment right there!

Ramos: [Laughs.] Yeah. Absolutely! These organizations do all kinds of things like that.

FIRE: You and I talked last year about the proposed Harvard sanctions after they were first announced. Can you talk more broadly about some of the biggest associational threats to fraternities and sororities on the national scene?

Ramos: Some administrations are very supportive of Greek life, but there are also many cases where the administration is implementing restrictions.

One of the main points of tension is when the universities are trying to kick these organizations off campus. For example, we’ve seen some organizations lose their ability to provide on-campus housing, which has been hard on students because the housing aspect is a really important part of the community.

We’ve also seen a range of administrative responses, from just pushing these organizations off campus, to actually punishing students for being in them and forcing students to drop their organizational status. That effectively closes these chapters down.

Aside from what we’ve seen at Harvard, I know University of Chicago sororities and fraternities have been in contention with their administration. And Amherst College, for example, has eliminated all their sororities and fraternities.

FIRE: Why are universities doing this?

Ramos: For some administrations, it’s more of a safety concern. They’re worried some of these organizations are unsafe spaces, especially for women, and that they’re just not an asset to the campus environment.

I think in Harvard’s case, the administration is mostly championing the aspect of inclusion. Their main argument is that sororities, fraternities, and final clubs are not inclusive spaces, and that’s mostly based on the fact that they’re not gender-inclusive. They’ve also talked about socio-economic diversity and things like that.

FIRE: So let’s talk more about Harvard specifically. We’ve been critical of Harvard continuing to try and push through these proposed sanctions against members of single-gender clubs. We’ve reported on Harvard already having to make exceptions to its proposal, and on the lack of promised oversight the plan’s implementation committee could realistically provide.

You have concerns about the implementation too. Tell us about that.

Ramos: The implementation committee didn’t address the concerns that the fraternity and sorority members have.

The administration is mainly focused on repurposing Harvard’s current social life scene. They want to try out dining societies, similar to the way Princeton has eating clubs. They would bring together different dorm houses for meetings twice a month over a meal of some kind, the idea being that the university could effectively create co-educational social organizations on campus.

The university has also stated that they are going to push back the sanction implementation for women’s groups for three to five years, but in meetings we’ve been told that the long-term plan is to indeed eliminate these organizations on campus.

Harvard is pushing back this timeline to accommodate women’s groups and acknowledge the fact that women have typically been marginalized. Women’s groups often don’t have the same support networks that some of the men’s groups do, or might not have the same opportunities to go co-ed while keeping the same mission.

FIRE: Why, in your opinion, are those plans misguided? What would you have preferred?

Ramos: I think the main frustration is that all of the sororities and fraternities are on the same page in terms of what we think the goals of the administration should be right now.

We think that Harvard can be a very exclusive place. We think that there is sexual assault on campus. We think that these are very important issues we need to solve. And we think that the way we would go about it is completely different from what Harvard wants to do.

Fraternities and sororities, for example, are actually more inclusive than the majority of Harvard organizations, which is kind of interesting. Most student organizations at Harvard are actually very exclusive. But almost every woman who goes through recruitment at Harvard will be offered a bid to one of the sororities. There’s definitely more that can be done in terms of making our organizations more inclusive. But it’s frustrating to see the reality of the sorority experience not represented when the administration is saying these aren’t inclusive spaces.

My sorority, for example, has been piloting an alumni donation program so we’re able to offer increased socio-economic diversity, and we’ve also been working on ways to ensure that more women who go through recruitment are ultimately able to join.

I would personally love to see Harvard work with these Greek organizations as opposed to against them. And there’s a lot the university could do to work within and build on the support systems sororities and fraternities already provide.

My hope is that, in the next few years, we are able to continue these conversations as opposed to letting them die out. Hopefully we can change their minds at some point.

FIRE: So what’s the plan to make that happen?

Ramos: I think there’s a pretty large disconnect between what the administration is trying to enact and what it will actually enact. I’m hopeful that if they start to see that what the sorority and fraternity leaders have been saying is happening, or start to get more supportive messages from staff or faculty or alumni, they’ll potentially believe us more.

In earlier meetings they seemed to see the value of fraternities and sororities over the final clubs, whereas now all the single-gender organizations are pretty much lumped into one bucket — the main difference being that final clubs can go co-ed and maintain their status, whereas fraternities and sororities cannot, based on our national organizations’ rules. If we go co-ed, we will lose our status.

While a lot of the people who’ve been taking the lead on these conversations are graduating, our underclassmen are also really invested in this. Not only do they care about these organizations from any member’s perspective, but they know their experience on campus is going to be drastically affected by whatever happens in the next couple of years.

I’m hoping they will continue to take up the fight in terms of working with the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences. They’re the larger overseers of what happens at the college. We’re hopeful that the faculty will get involved and see either the value of these organizations or even the value of freedom of association. Whichever argument rings true to them, we believe in both. We hope they’ll find an aspect of our cause to believe in as well.

FIRE: There are still people who will argue that, until there’s no exclusion based on gender, there won’t be true inclusion. Why do you disagree with that?

Ramos: Fraternities and sororities are as inclusive as they can be while maintaining their gender focus because they’re pretty much doing everything else that they can in terms of inclusion and getting diverse perspectives and backgrounds. There’s a large divide between feeling included and technically being included, and I don’t doubt that there’s room for sororities to grow in terms of making it a more comfortable space for women who, for example, don’t identify along the typical gender norms. But I think that’s a place sororities are ready to and willing to and prepared to grow.

But at its core, these organizations really find so much of their value in their single-gender mission. There is a strong value in having places on campus for women to learn about what it means to be a woman for them, and to develop in that social identity.

It’s a great thing to have co-educational spaces as well, but I think it’s a very important choice for women to be able to make.

Harvard has had a lot of problems over the years with safety and exclusion and sexual assault on campus, and I think that has made the value of women’s spaces even more important.

FIRE: This element of choice sticks out to me. You guys are all adults. Why is it important not just to have a say in what associations you join, but to know that those associations are governed by their own principles as opposed to the university? That seems like an important part of a true educational experience.

Ramos: Absolutely. I think so too.

At its core, all these organizations are really values-based organizations. I think that the administration is coming in with this view of them as social organizations, but I think that really misrepresents what these organizations are. In reality, they’re all based on the values the members hold closest to their hearts. That’s something that’s very hard for the university or the administration to replicate. It’s really hard for them to come in and say, “We’re going to create these organizations and you, members, are going to get along.” Fraternities and sororities have developed these values over hundreds of years. We haven’t found places like that on campus.

Because those values are really the most important part of these organizations, it’s even more frustrating to see the administration trying to replicate them without that core aspect.

The fact that we’ve seen increasing numbers of women going through recruitment speaks to the value of these organizations to our members. It really shows how necessary it is on campus. It scares me a lot to think about the experience of future Harvard women who won’t have the same access to a support network that I found through my sorority.

FIRE: You’re involved in so many different things. Why is speaking out on this issue a passion for you?

Ramos: Part of it is the personal aspect and part of it is the logistical or moral aspect.

From a personal perspective, my sorority has been one of the most important things in my life in the last four years. And that’s coming from someone who came into college with no intention of joining a sorority. It was a totally new experience for me. But four years later, I can say it’s been probably the most valuable part of my college experience.

Looking around at all of my sisters, the support that I have received from them and provided to them, in terms of academic support, mental support, and emotional support, is just unparalleled. Harvard’s a really hard place to be and those support networks are so incredibly vital to students’ success. I would really hate to see those go away.

From a moral or logistical standpoint, students should be able to decide what organizations to affiliate with. Harvard’s choice to punish students is forcing them to make a choice they shouldn’t have to make.

As an outgoing chapter president, I would never feel comfortable making one of my members choose between being in a sorority and having all of these other opportunities, like applying for a Fulbright scholarship or captaining a sports team. We’re here to support all of our members in everything that they do.

What Harvard is doing completely goes against our mission. It’s not right.

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