Table of Contents

Harvard students, faculty, alumni, vow fight against ‘deeply disturbing’ social club ban

Members of the Harvard community say they will push back against a faculty committee’s recommendation that all exclusive social clubs be banned.

In a report released last week by a committee expected to dial back last year’s controversial policy to sanction single-gender clubs like fraternities and sororities, the committee instead doubled down, urging Harvard to eliminate all off-campus social clubs due to their “pernicious influence.” If enacted, noncompliance would prompt formal punishment.

“We’re all very disappointed and angered,” said Conor Healy, a rising junior and president of the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative, which advocates for free expression on campus. “We wanted the committee to recognize the disappointment and outrage being expressed by the faculty and students,” he said. “But it’s clear they have blinders on. What’s happened here is they think we want more parental supervision.”

Healy’s group announced a new initiative to combat the regulations and urged others to join them.

“In the face of a regressive crusade by the Harvard administration to remake human interaction in its own ideological image, action must be taken,” they wrote. “Push back. Don’t let them do it.”

Other impacted students expressed similar outrage.

“For me, an overwhelming feeling has been frustration,” said Camille N'Diaye-Muller, a Harvard sorority president. “The committee reinforced the assumption that has been made from the start of this discussion that all the social organizations on campus operate the same way, have the same impact on campus, and serve the same function. This is just untrue.”

“When I found my sorority on campus, I found a place where women from different academic fields, political affiliations, interests, and backgrounds came together solely to support one another,” she continued. “It’s been the only place where I have not been afraid to be authentic and honest, and that I did not feel that my value was tied to anything other than being myself.”

But N'Diaye-Muller says Harvard is not painting an accurate picture of social organizations on campus.

“By refusing to acknowledge the nuances of the different types of organizations, the recommendations that follow hurt the same people they were trying to help," she said. "Future Harvard women will not have these safe spaces that I and others have found in our sororities.”

A student member of two clubs affected by the new policy spoke to FIRE on condition of anonymity amid concerns that speaking out could jeopardize his ability to work strategically with club members and administrators. The rising senior is a member of both Harvard’s storied co-ed Hasty Pudding Club and the Delphic Club, one of the all-male final clubs Harvard has appeared to target over concerns they contribute to a rise in campus sexual assaults.

“All we want is to use the off-campus clubs, which have each stood for over 100 years, maintain our traditions, and foster bonds of friendship,” he wrote to FIRE in an email. Social clubs, he said, “fill a role in student social life that the college is woefully incapable of reproducing.” (FIRE reported earlier this year that Harvard was toying with the idea of creating dining club-type events where students could socialize on campus.)

He also predicted “lawsuits from the clubs, who have a vested interested in continuing operation, not least of all because they provide employment to stewards, cooks, and other staff, all of whom would lose their jobs.”

Indeed, legal action may already be in the works.

The Harvard Crimson reported that at least two final clubs, the Fly Club and the Fox Club, appeared to be actively considering legal action.

FIRE co-founder and board member Harvey Silverglate, who represents the Fly Club in his role as a private attorney, confirms to FIRE that the club “will fight to protect its autonomy, and the right of students to join the Fly, against penalties threatened by the Harvard administration to punish such membership and, not so incidentally, put the clubs out of business.”

“This unseemly power-grab should take away the breath of anyone interested in the strength of our system of higher education and who is committed to the notion that it is the job of a liberal arts college to educate, not to tyrannize, not to micro-manage the private lives of, undergraduates,” Silverglate said.

Faculty members are also weighing in and considering their options.

Last week, psychology professor Steven Pinker told FIRE the plan was “a terrible recommendation.”

“This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force,” Pinker said.

Richard Losick, a Harvard biology professor and member of FIRE’s board, echoed that sentiment, calling the proposed policy “deeply disturbing in multiple ways.” He detailed his concerns in an email to FIRE:

First, and most importantly, the proposed policy flies in the face of the widely shared principle of freedom of association. Why should the University decide with whom students socialize? We might not like their choices, but should the University impose its own values on our undergraduates? We the members of the Faculty can argue with their choices and offer competing alternatives. But should we force our views on them?  

Second, it is hypocritical in that the University sanctions a wide variety of social organizations that are de facto single-gender, single-ethnic group, single-religion, or single-race.

Third, by what McCarthy-esque procedure will it be determined whether a student has secretly joined an unsanctioned private club and hence should be brought before the Administrative Board for punishment?  

Finally, whether the policy will be implemented will evidently be decided by the President, thereby usurping the authority of the Faculty. This is part of a disturbing trend in which fundamental decisions about how the College is governed are increasingly in the hands of administrators, deans, and the President instead of the members of the Faculty.

Professor Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College and author of last year’s faculty motion critical of the single-gender sanctions, has taken to his personal blog to comment on the developments. (FIRE readers will remember that Lewis subsequently withdrew his motion after Harvard promised to empanel the committee to “revise or replace” the sanctions proposal.) In a post last week, just after the policy was released, Lewis wrote:

The recommendation manages to put Harvard in a position that combines arrogance with insecurity. The University would suspend ordinary freedom of association rights so that Harvard can pick which off-campus clubs students can join. And at the same time the report displays a lack of confidence in Harvard’s mission to educate students to make choices for themselves. Instead Harvard would do the easy thing: make a law and punish the nonconformists. This is not the way to prepare the citizens of a free society.

It contains one particularly significant sentence: “The President will make the final decision.” So we have a committee, hand-picked by the dean, declaring that the matter is not under Faculty jurisdiction. I don’t know how the Faculty will react to the policy itself — I would like to think they would not support it — but I would be very surprised if they would agree that this matter is not within their authority to decide.

In a comment on Lewis’ post, Cornell law professor James Grimmelmann pointed out his own concerns, calling the proposed policy “disturbingly vague” and “a severe restriction on students’ freedom of association”:

What kinds of exclusion are to be prohibited? While the report focuses on single-gender organizations, it refers more broadly to “gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.” But the proposal itself isn’t even qualified by a list of protected classes, and it makes clear that dropping gender-discriminatory policies is not by itself sufficient “transformation.” All that seems to be left, then, is having a selective membership process and events open only to members and their guests. But if that’s the issue, then numerous Harvard institutions — the Lampoon, the Advocate, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, many singing groups, perhaps even the Crimson — might seem to be “exclusionary” in the same unacceptable way.


Even without considering whether the policy is worth the harms it will inflict, the report fails almost utterly to establish that the policy will do what it sets out to do.

Reached for comment late last week, Harry Lewis tells FIRE he is reviewing details of the new report and mulling next steps — potentially with regard to his faculty motion on freedom of association.

“Several faculty are in discussion with me about re-introducing the motion,” he said.

Today, Lewis again took to his blog to reveal that he had used the committee-established web portal for faculty and student comments to register his thoughts. Among them:

It is true that the rights enumerated in the First Amendment are dangerous to established order. As Americans, we can ridicule our president, and can gather peaceably together in groups that cause the authorities to suspect that we are up to no good. It took supreme confidence on the part of the Founders to build into the Constitution the assurance that the government would not interfere with these activities. It might watch us closely and stand ready to respond when we break a law, but Congress could not make the speech or assembly itself unlawful. The reason these things are allowed, even when they are considered obnoxious or worse by prevailing social standards, is that the Founders understood that society is not static, and they had confidence that an enlightened if not always harmonious society will in the long run be better off, that social progress will occur, if people are allowed to speak and assemble peaceably even for reasons the authorities find offensive.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane said she could not comment on the implementation of the new policy beyond a letter from the committee stating simply that faculty would have the opportunity to provide feedback in various fora.

It remains unclear whether faculty will have a role in formally approving or rejecting the policy, or whether the proposal will be unilaterally enacted by Harvard administrators.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.