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Harvard’s Troubled History with Free Association: Part 1

As you may know, FIRE has been a vocal opponent of Harvard’s proposed blacklist for student members of independent, single-gender organizations including sororities, fraternities, and final clubs. The proposed sanctions for blacklisted students make a mockery of freedom of association at Harvard by barring members of these social clubs from leading sports teams or on-campus organizations and disqualifying them from receiving the dean’s recommendation necessary to apply for prestigious programs like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. What’s more, the policy represents a new milestone in Harvard’s long history of troubling attacks on these rights—a track record of which current students might not be aware. Today, FIRE published an open letter in The Harvard Crimson (and embedded below) seeking to educate Harvard students about this worrisome record, and how they can keep their university accountable for protecting free association on campus.

Out of the many ominous dimensions of this ongoing saga, one has gone without much notice: Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and the policy’s creator, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana have never released the recommendations made by a Harvard implementation committee on how the blacklist should be compiled. Dean Khurana said those recommendations will “provide needed guidance” to the new committee, which was empaneled just two weeks ago. But as far as anyone at FIRE can determine, there are only two ways Harvard can go about discovering and sanctioning unsavory associations: They can question students about their associations behind closed doors, or in the clear light of day. Harvard has done both in the past, with predictably shameful results. FIRE hopes that the new committee of faculty, students, and administrators will take their “needed guidance” from history instead.

In this first installment of a two-part blog series, we’ll dig deeper into Harvard’s long history of punishing students for their controversial associations. Today, we explore a dark period in the 1920s that’s regrettably relevant today: Harvard’s era of the “Secret Court.”

Yes, They Actually Called it the “Secret Court”

By accident in 2002, a Harvard student journalist by the name of Amit Paley stumbled upon references to a secret tribunal from the 1920s in the Harvard University archives. The documents were—and this is not an exaggeration—in a box marked “Secret Court.” (Who ever said bureaucrats lack creativity?)

Intrigued, Paley petitioned the university to release the records. He was denied. Upon appeal, and after several months of deliberation by a Harvard committee, the university relented and released the documents to The Crimson in redacted form.

From what Paley reported about the contents of the “Secret Court” file, it is easy to see why Harvard kept those records buried for 81 years and, almost a century later, still fought their release.

The facts that follow are taken from Paley’s excellent reporting on the subject, as well as FIRE’s own subsequent research into the Secret Court documents in Harvard’s archives.

The Files

In 1920, a young Harvard student named Cyril B. Wilcox committed suicide.

His older brother, George Wilcox, believed his suicide was caused by his association with several gay men, some of them Harvard students. This assumption—which was never verified—would ultimately lead to dire consequences for other gay men and their associates at Harvard.

George, livid over his brother’s death, sought out a Boston man he believed to have been Cyril’s former lover. George literally beat out of the man a confession of his relationship with Cyril, and the names of other gay men they associated with. George then presented that information to Harvard.

Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell immediately empaneled a group of four administrators and one professor, at the time dubbed simply “The Court,” to address the situation.

For months, the Secret Court called both students and Boston residents to appear and interrogated them behind closed doors about alleged homosexual activity. Their custom was to use a piece of information, whether from someone previously called before them, or from a Harvard hall proctor asked to log entries into a room suspected of harboring homosexual activity, to pressure a witness into revealing his personal activities and identifying others engaged in similar behavior.

Paley’s reporting uncovered that those interrogated were indeed naming names—and that at least one expressed deep regret for doing so:

I very much regret now, in after-thought, that I gave any names whatsoever….I realize that to give you names means to get confessions of one case of guilt, and then expulsion….I know of lads still in the University going wrong. To tell would expel them, while a word of warning, a helping hand, without the ‘jolt’ of ruining their life careers, could help them out.

The Consequences

In the end, eight students and one instructor were removed from the school and forced to leave the city of Cambridge—such was the power of Harvard. Two of the eight expelled were punished, not for being homosexuals or engaging in homosexual activity, but for the crime of merely associating too closely with people they allegedly knew to be gay. As a letter to a parent of an expelled student said: “Your son, though we believe him to be innocent of any homosexual act, is in the following ways too closely connected with those who have been guilty of these acts...”

And the punishment did not stop with expulsion. Those deemed guilty were also subjected to blacklisting by Harvard. When an expelled student applied to Brown, Amherst College, and the University of Virginia, each school received letters from Harvard, and he was ultimately rejected from those other universities.

Harvard also directed employees in its office of Alumni Placement Services, which aided alumni in finding jobs, not to assist the ousted students:

Before making any statement that would indicate confidence in the following men, please consult some one [sic] in the Dean’s office. If they do not know what is meant, tell them to look in the disciplinary file in an envelope marked ‘Roberts, E.W. and others.’

A Boston-area newspaper clipping from 1920 announcing the Wilcox and Cummings suicides.

Tragically, in the wake of these impossibly unfair punishments, one of the expelled students, Eugene R. Cummings, took his own life. Because Cummings’ suicide so closely coincided with that of Cyril Wilcox, the media reported on it. An article in The Boston American titled “2 HARVARD MEN DIE SUDDENLY” included the following:

According to friends of the two in Fall River, Cummings, who was said to have been mentally unbalanced, told a story of an alleged inquisition which he claimed was held in the [Harvard] college office following Wilcox’ death. He said that he was taken into the office, which was shrouded in gloom, with but one light dimly burning, and there questioned exhaustively. This story, which was denied by the college authorities, was said to have sprung from his disordered mind.

This story was, as we now know, not the product of a “disordered mind,” but of administrators so cruel that their actions beggar belief.

That Harvard denied the existence of the Secret Court to the press in the 1920s, and fought the release of related records in 2002, is easy to understand. Secret tribunals punishing students and faculty for being homosexuals, or for merely associating with homosexuals, are morally repugnant, and the legacy of the Secret Court remains a dark stain on the university’s history. As then-president of Harvard in 2002, Lawrence Summers, told The Crimson:

These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind… We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have.

Despite this enthusiastic condemnation, the Secret Court was never officially abolished, according to Their Day in the Yard, a Harvard student movement that lobbied unsuccessfully to have expelled students posthumously recognized with honorary degrees. And in spite of President Summers’ condemnation, his successor, President Drew Gilpin Faust, is poised to repeat history if the sanctions on single gender organizations enter into effect as planned.

The Threat Today

Though the facts of the case are different, the principle is the same: Harvard has once again decided that a certain group—students in single-gender, off-campus clubs—is so unsavory that they should be denied opportunities at Harvard and beyond.

President Faust and the policy’s creator, Dean Khurana, undoubtedly feel their cause is righteous. So too, no doubt, did President Lowell in 1920. And their conclusions are ultimately the same in kind if not in scale: these men (and now, women) are dangerous and because of their associations they ought to be ostracized, lest anyone think Harvard puts confidence in them.

Will Harvard soon play host to a revival of the Secret Court? Considering the opacity with which the administrators involved have operated thus far, provisions like closed-door hearings, using university staff as spies, and pressuring students to name their associates do not seem far-fetched. Indeed, the total absence of any public specifics on how this will work sends the distinct impression that the truth will look very ugly under public scrutiny. It’s entirely possible that the new committee was empaneled because the recommendations from the implementation committee were too appalling to implement. This might also explain why the formation of the new committee was announced a mere two days after the implementation committee delivered the first draft of its recommendations, to the existing committee’s surprise.

There remains another model for these tribunals. In Part 2, we’ll discuss Harvard’s history of collaborating with McCarthyism to sanction those associated with Communism.

Want to take action against Harvard’s latest effort to revive an associational blacklist? Urge Harvard to abandon this illiberal policy.

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