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Harvard’s Steven Pinker on proposal to ban social clubs: ‘This is a terrible recommendation’

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker. (Rose Lincoln/Harvard University)

Members of the Harvard University community are reacting to news yesterday that a faculty committee recommends the Ivy League institution eliminate all exclusive social clubs. The ban would effectively shutter any Harvard-connected off-campus clubs, including all fraternities and sororities, by the year 2022 — despite Harvard’s continued promises of unfettered freedom of association for its students.

In a statement to FIRE, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has detailed his objections to the policy. Among Pinker’s accolades for his groundbreaking work in the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics, are two Pulitzer Prize nominations and numerous awards from groups like the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. The New York Times bestselling author has been previously dubbed by Time as one of its “100 most influential people in the world,” and last year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He is also a member of FIRE’s Advisory Council.

Accordingly, we wanted to bring our readers Pinker’s insightful comments in full:

This is a terrible recommendation, which is at odds with the ideals of a university.

  1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.
  1. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.
  1. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.
  1. 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.

We wholeheartedly agree and hope the university will provide the opportunity for a full faculty hearing and vote on the proposal. As we reported yesterday, it remains unclear whether Harvard will permit faculty to formally approve the proposal, or merely register comments.

FIRE is continuing to seek comment from others at Harvard, including from Harvard administrators.

We will provide updates as this developing story unfolds.

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