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Harvard to Student Club: Lie About Your Policies and You’ll Be OK

Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/

Harvard University’s ill-conceived decision to blacklist students who join off-campus, single-sex social organizations continues to backfire, forcing administrators to make exceptions to the overbroad policy.

The latest one would permit an off-campus women’s club to remain female-only without violating the policy that supposedly punishes “gender-based discrimination.” This strongly suggests that the real motivation behind the policy is not sex or gender discrimination at all—it’s that the Harvard administration simply doesn’t like certain groups and is willing to be as deceptive as is necessary to try to eliminate them. If you go to Harvard, beware: You’d better hope you and yours aren’t next on the freedom of association chopping block.

The Harvard Crimson reported yesterday on the alleged details of the exception described in emails it obtained, which, if substantiated, are truly absurd. According to the co-presidents of the off-campus, all-female Seneca club, the group was told by an administrator that it can go right on being single-sex but will not be sanctioned as long as it simply writes gender-neutrality into its policy. That is, The Seneca can go on being single-sex as long as it’s willing to tell a bald-faced lie about it.

The Seneca is apparently a 501(c)(3) organization, which likely differentiates it from most of the off-campus, single-sex organizations that would be impacted by the new policy. However, both Harvard’s broadly-worded statement, along with the school’s own efforts to help the club skirt the new rules, strongly suggest Seneca members would have been in line for blacklisting when the policy goes into effect starting next year. (The policy announced in the spring made no mention of IRS tax status having anything to do with when it is acceptable to be gender-exclusive.)

This is pretty hard to take coming from an administration that has justified its (now undeniably) viewpoint-based blacklist by saying that single-sex social groups are “at odds with [Harvard’s] deepest values.” In her letter justifying the measures—which would prevent student members of targeted clubs from leading campus organizations or sports teams and prevent them from receiving Harvard recommendations for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships—Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust called on the university’s unrecognized social organizations to adopt an “open” application process and called for “greater overall transparency.”

This isn’t open. This isn’t transparency. And one certainly hopes it’s not in accordance with Harvard’s “deepest values.” This is encouraging a student group to blatantly lie about its policies and practices. It’s a disgrace to Harvard. And Harvard’s students, alumni, and faculty should not stand for this kind of dishonesty.

FIRE and others have been critical for months of the apparent attack on freedom of association that seemed intended to target exclusive men’s final clubs from the outset but—as we noted when the policy was announced—swept within its hugely broad ambit all fraternities and sororities, as well as many other men’s, women’s, and LGBTQ clubs. Those clubs have spoken out against the policy that would ban them from leadership in all recognized on-campus clubs. Students and faculty have also told FIRE they’re shocked and upset by the implications of the policy: that freedom of association at Harvard is under serious threat.

As we reported in May, Harvard made another exception for the Crimson, saying members of blacklisted organizations can still work as editors on the student newspaper even though—as FIRE pointed out—the newspaper is, in fact, a recognized student organization that would normally be off-limits for gender-discriminators. But it seems that Harvard realized that the appearance of influencing the staff of one of the oldest student newspapers in the nation wasn’t advisable after all.

If Harvard was trying to provide FIRE and other civil liberties advocates with an example of how restrictions on free association are abused, it could hardly have done better. As FIRE warned at the outset, once college administrators engage in viewpoint-based discrimination against one category of viewpoints, no one is safe. Students may be punished based on the subjective, approved viewpoints of the administration. These approved viewpoints are subject to change based on the political whims of those in power. And change they do.

Just consider this example from a 1992 ROTC advisory committee report made up of Harvard faculty and students that shows that such laudable goals as preventing discrimination and protecting freedom of association used to coexist peacefully at the nation’s oldest university. The ROTC advisory group, “charged with reporting back to Harvard” on the status of ROTC’s campus presence back before homosexuals could serve openly in the military, signaled that certain problems with the off-campus group’s rules might have run afoul of Harvard’s non-discrimination policy. But, after all, ROTC was an outside organization. The committee’s conclusion?

Harvard is not and should not be responsible for the policies and practices of the wide variety of external organizations in which its students may choose to participate, or from which they may receive educational funding. Some of our students belong to organizations, such as religious or single-sex social clubs, that have membership requirements which would be impermissible under the University’s non-discrimination policy. If they are not conducted as Harvard activities and do not receive direct University support, they do not come under University scrutiny.


Further, intrusion by the University into the private choices of students, acting as individuals, to form such associations, receive such support, or participate in such external activities would, we believe, be unacceptably paternalistic.

[Emphases added.]

Choosing to engage in such “paternalistic” overreach, the group wrote, “would seek to extend the reach of Harvard’s non-discrimination policy beyond its proper boundaries.”

In 1992, intruding into the lives of its adult students was unacceptably paternalistic at Harvard. Not so in 2016! Harvard students and alumni, we ask you: Is this progress? Were the students of 1992 really that much more deserving of being treated as adults than are the students of 2016? And even if you think that today’s students are more fragile—a position with which FIRE strongly disagrees—does that make lying about the policy acceptable?

It’s long past time for Harvard to reverse this indefensible and bankrupt policy that compromises students’ freedom of association while encouraging them to deceive one another and the public. If you would like to write to President Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana to urge them to make the right decision, FIRE has set up a way to contact them via our website. We hope you’ll use it.

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