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Special Treatment? Harvard Exempts ‘The Harvard Crimson’ from Single-Gender Club Policy

By and May 20, 2016

Harvard University has exempted the school’s daily student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, from its new policy banning members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations from holding leadership positions in Recognized Independent Student Organizations (ISOs).

One of the many inevitable implications of Harvard’s recent attack on freedom of association is that without such an exemption, the policy would have allowed Harvard administrators to exert control over the leadership of the school’s best-known independent student newspaper, thereby compromising its editorial independence.

According to Crimson president Mariel Klein, however, despite being explicitly listed as an ISO, the paper received an exemption from Dean Rakesh Khurana, who first suggested the policy May 6.

“We have confirmed we are exempt with the Dean of the College,” Klein wrote to FIRE in an email.

The move suggests Harvard is already grappling with the consequences of the controversial policy, which was met with increasing blowback from students, academics, and FIRE, as a threat to freedom of association. In fact, one of Khurana’s predecessors, Harry R. Lewis, outlined his concerns in a letter to Khurana May 11. Lewis wrote:

A few of the Final Clubs are noxious, and you are to be thanked for your determination to rein them in. I am concerned, however, that by asserting, for the first time, such broad authority over Harvard students’ off-campus associations, the good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity. None of us can disagree with the sentiment behind your statement that “Discrimination is pernicious”; but exactly what that means and what it implies in practice are arguable.

The Crimson was first to report on the administration’s announcement of the policy earlier this month. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in a May 6 open letter that she had accepted Dean Khurana’s recommendations to, beginning in 2017, ban students in off-campus, single-gender social organizations—like the school’s historic final clubs, or fraternities and sororities—from leadership positions in Harvard-recognized clubs and sports teams, and from receiving the Dean’s endorsement letters for certain fellowships and prestigious scholarships, including the Rhodes and Marshall programs.

Faust described the policy as an effort to discourage gender-based discrimination as “a form of self-segregation that undermines the promise offered by Harvard’s diverse student body.” (Apparently, giving the Crimson an exemption from these rules leads to an acceptable amount of such “undermining.”)

But just how far Harvard’s willingness to handpick exempt organizations extends remains to be seen.

Dean Khurana and President Faust have not responded to FIRE’s repeated requests for comment—odd, since one would think that Harvard’s top leadership would be eager to expound upon and defend what it sees as a visionary policy from one of the most elite schools in the world—and it is unclear whether other publications or organizations will receive exemptions from the policy.

At least one of Harvard’s other student-run news outlets, which did not want to comment on the record, told FIRE it was trying to learn whether the new policy would affect its ability to operate. The fact that a student-run Harvard publication—an organization whose very business is reporting and publicly commenting on Harvard issues—did not feel free to publicly comment on a policy that has the potential to interfere with the makeup of its editorial board speaks volumes about the environment at Harvard for those who dare to disagree. (It’s amazing how Harvard’s attack on freedom of association so quickly and predictably manifested itself as a chill on the freedoms of speech and the press, isn’t it?)

On May 12, FIRE wrote to Harvard asking the school to reconsider the policy. Arbitrarily selecting which organizations will be subject to the policy is unacceptable.

If Harvard recognizes that a student newspaper’s ability to select its own leadership should not be subjected to administrators’ preferences—and we hope it does—it must recognize that the same argument applies to all other independent student organizations. If freedom of association means anything at Harvard, independent student organizations must be free to select their own leadership according to the law and to their own values—not values arbitrarily selected by this year’s occupants of the administrative suites. Individual student organizations that believe their leaders should not also be members of off-campus, single-sex organizations should be free to choose accordingly. But that dictate should not come from Harvard’s administration.

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