Harvard University may be the greatest permanent gathering of intellect in the history of the world. It has the finances and managerial expertise to match — in fact, it just concluded a $6.5 billion capital campaign, the largest in the history of American higher education.
And yet the university’s recent attempt to settle an important issue for many of its undergraduates is . . . amateurish, incoherent, and petty.
Harvard announced last week that it will impose sanctions on members of single-sex social organizations not recognized by the college: male and female “final clubs,” fraternities, and sororities.
Many others have already addressed the illiberality of and principled problems with banning Harvard students from some leadership positions based on the social groups they belong to. These criticisms have even come from a liberal or two.So I want to focus on said amateurishness, and what it says about the crisis at the heart of Harvard and other universities.
The administration seems to have been unable to make up its mind what kind of punishments should befall single-sex organizations that have, as of 2016, become unacceptable to the university. The dean involved in designing the new policy danced around various threats and targets in private and in public, finally settling on a halfway measure: making members of single-sex social organizations ineligible for leadership positions in official extracurricular groups and sports teams, and refusing to recommend them for such fellowships as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
In other words, the university is now going to prevent undergraduates from choosing the leadership they want for the organizations they run, and it will have an explicit policy of sending applicants for said scholarships who may not be the best Harvard has to offer. Very sensible.
One major motivating factor for this effort: Harvard’s contention that single-sex social organizations contribute to sexual assault. What is the evidence for that?
One survey found that a somewhat higher percentage of female students who have ever participated in activities sponsored by a single-sex group have been subject to “nonconsensual sexual contact” than was the case among those who hadn’t participated.
No data or real qualitative research suggests that the clubs or their culture have anything to do with the rate of such incidents. In fact, the incidents could have happened anywhere, anytime, at Harvard.
(They could have taken place at a Students for Palestine party!)
As Caitlin Flanagan put it, “It would be almost impossible to concoct a more meaningless statistic.”And yet that seems to be not only the administration’s favorite argument for blaming sexual assault on single-sex policies, but actually its only argument. Not for lack of trying, one suspects, the university has unearthed no other hard evidence — if the above can itself be called evidence — that final clubs, fraternities, or sororities contribute to the incidence of sexual assault.
The self-righteous condemnation combined with utter lack of evidence is an embarrassment. A good share of the groups caught in Harvard’s dragnet have almost no co-ed events at all — i.e., almost no avenues through which they could reasonably be responsible for sexual assault.
The world’s greatest and richest university really wants you to believe that Porcellian members lunching in coat-and-tie and Kappa Kappa Gammas networking over canapés are causing sexual assaults.
The absurdity of the new sanctions is already coming home to roost, with some of the strongest and most politically damaging pushback coming from such groups. (The administration has put forth its own theoretical explanations for why single-sex organizations — or final clubs at least — contribute to sexual assault, but this is a remarkably intrusive step to take on the basis of theory.)
But the timing, at least, of Harvard’s sanctions is not wholly arbitrary: The school began the push against single-sex clubs in anticipation of a Title IX report from the Department of Education alleging that the school handles sexual assault poorly. It now explicitly offers the sanctions as a response to the report — instead of, you know, focusing on handling sexual assault properly.
Yet anyone who cares about sexual assault — a real problem on college campuses — and the Department of Education, which is supposedly dissatisfied with Harvard’s handling of it, should be livid that this is such a big part of Harvard’s response. Loyal alumni of Harvard concerned about sexual assault and the institution’s self-preservation vis-à-vis the federal government should expect a lot better than this amateurish, opportunistic plan, too.
If this is not intended as a practical measure, but merely as a principled one, it is no more defensible.
The administration has repeatedly claimed that final clubs’ and Greek organizations’ single-sex policies most stop because they are out of step with the 21st century and “antithetical to [Harvard’s] institutional values.”
If Harvard just banned fraternities and male clubs, could they offer some intersectional complaint about all-men’s activities with social purposes, then? Hard to square with official blessings for the Black Men’s Forum, the Latino Men’s Collective, and the South Asian Men’s Collective.
But now the university is lashing out, under false pretenses, at loyal students and alumni, either in the service of shallow loyalty to the cause of the moment, or as a short-sighted attempt to cover up its own institutional failures. This is real, unnecessary, and self-inflicted damage. Harvard needs more institutions that provide structure to students’ social lives and engender lasting loyalty — not fewer.
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