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(Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock.com)

Professors Standing Up for Freedom of Association at Harvard

By September 13, 2016

Harvard University has faced widespread criticism since its May announcement that it would sanction members of off-campus, single-gender clubs. The administration claims it’s part of an effort to “address deeply rooted gender attitudes, and the related issues of sexual misconduct.” Now a small group of professors say that they hope the Harvard faculty adopt a motion they’ve authored which would prevent the Harvard administration from discriminating against students “on the basis of their organizational memberships.” If it passes, it may just signal hope for the future of freedom of association at Harvard.

In an op-ed published today in The Harvard Crimson, computer science professors Harry R. Lewis and Margo I. Seltzer, government professor Eric M. Nelson, and classics professor Richard F. Thomas excoriated the policy, which they called “deeply objectionable, on both substantive and procedural grounds.” (FIRE board member and Harvard biology professor Richard M. Losick is a signatory to the motion, though not today’s article.)

The op-ed offers a cogent analysis of what’s wrong with the Harvard policy—and the consequences it could have at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions. It’s worth a full read.

The piece first argues that the policy is supported by little evidence that it would meaningfully address sexual assault. “Reducing sexual assaults on campus … requires thoughtful discussion and hard work,” the professors write. “The policy encourages neither, and is less likely to reduce sexual assault than to cultivate the illusion of decisive action.”

The group also expresses concerns that the policy is not narrowly tailored, unfairly sweeping all sororities and fraternities into its ambit, and that it fosters an atmosphere of fear and disdain. We reported recently that Harvard appeared to have exempted some clubs for reputational reasons, and may have encouraged other single-gender clubs—ones with viewpoints Harvard apparently endorses—to simply change their bylaws to skirt the new rules.

The professors also worry the only way the policy will be enforced is by asking “students to inform on their peers—encouraging exactly the sort of poisonous conduct that we sought to avoid when implementing [Harvard’s] Honor Code.”

Frankly, the possible alternatives or additions to such an “informant” system—private investigators? Electronic spying? Administrative panels asking “are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a final club?”—may be even worse.

But, echoing FIRE’s concerns, the professors are most troubled by Harvard’s reneging on its own promises of free association and thought by instituting a sort of “values test.” They write:

Perhaps not since the Puritan era has Harvard assumed such a posture of authority over the beliefs and associations of its students. In modern times, the faculty has instead voted rules of behavior and sanctions for violating them, not rules of thought and tests for determining commitment to Harvard’s “values.”

Where would this train of logic lead? How many other associations to which students belong might be judged, with equal or greater plausibility, to be hostile to Harvard’s “values of non-discrimination”? What of the undergraduate who joins a lobbying organization that opposes gay marriage or one that combats affirmative action programs in higher education? Is membership in the Republican Party less an affront to “our deepest values” than membership of the Fly? How about the Daughters of the American Revolution—or the Roman Catholic Church?

FIRE hopes the full faculty ultimately approves the motion that would negate this disastrous policy. We will be watching closely to see what the future holds at Harvard.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Blacklisting of Final Club, Fraternity, and Sorority Students