Harvard’s new policy improves upon the existing policy adopted in May 2016, which misidentified the most problematic aspect of USGSOs, and also gave those groups an easy way out: gender-exclusive membership. The fact that only men could join male final clubs was never the culprit of their often exclusionary, elitist, and unhealthy practices. Admitting women as members, not just as guests, brought no guarantee of more inclusive recruitment. Neither did it add safeguards against sexual assault and discrimination that are reported to be the most egregious aspects of the clubs.
That said, the harsher policy sends the clear message that the administration is tackling the larger problem of social exclusion, rather than just gender discrimination. Harvard students’ interactions with final club parties vary tremendously. Some are certain of their admittance every weekend. Some try their luck at the door. Others consider such efforts a complete waste of time. But whatever the case, Harvard undergraduates largely live in a culture that glorifies the “ability” to get into final clubs or their parties, the prowess that entitles one to feel socially superior to those who are turned away.
Being rejected from entering the PSK is similar to being spurned at a fancy nightclub, yet the sense of humiliation experienced is so much worse when the gatekeepers are our own peers or friends. Yes, any private organization operating under a system of selective-membership can technically deny people from entering its social events. But the ubiquity of social exclusion does not lessen the uniquely toxic manner in which final clubs enforce a wrongful hierarchy among students, through their “invidious means of recruiting members and generating guest lists.”
The fact that critics of final clubs often join those groups or attend their parties, if given the opportunity, is more of a testament to the dominant influence of the institutions than a case of hypocrisy. Final clubs make people complicit in an unjust social order. We leave our friends behind to get our feet in at the door, or accept that some people will never get in no matter how early they show up. The excitement about getting into final club parties directly stems from an awareness of the rebuffed majority, yet this uneasy truth seldom moves us to seriously assess the clubs’ role in eroding our character. We allow the clubs to thrive upon discriminatory criteria—attractiveness, socioeconomic background, and other non-transparent yet obvious factors—that we would vehemently object to in non-social settings. By falling back on the familiar defense of final club members as decent individuals, we neglect in dissuading them, often our friends, from environments that bring out the worst of them.
But while the new recommendation rightfully adopts harsh measures against exclusionary practices of final clubs, it fails to recognize that USGSOs differ greatly in the form or degree of exclusion they exercise. The old policy came under criticism for harming fraternities and sororities instead of reducing the influence of male final clubs. It is nonsensical, then, to subject Greek organizations or other groups that are distinctively unlike final clubs to the same treatment. Sororities admit nearly all women who go through recruitment, hosting events that may not be open to all undergraduates for logistical reasons yet accommodate a substantial chunk of the undergraduate student body that sisters invite. Moreover, sororities do not have spaces specifically for throwing parties. This prevents instances of exclusion, as such structures deepen the physical and cultural separation between those who belong and those who do not.
A blanket policy that applies to all unrecognized groups condemns them all as equally destructive to the spirit and mission of Harvard. As a member of a sorority, I could comment extensively on how the new policy will deprive many women, including myself, of safe communities that have taught us to be accepting—and not at the expense of positioning ourselves above our non-member peers.
Importantly, sororities serve as internally therapeutic and energizing communities. They celebrate the gathering of women for reasons other than shared competence in a skill. Since sororities at Harvard are not stereotypical bastions of party culture, their events are neither unsafe nor harmful to non-members’ sense of self-worth or social standing. Thus, women should retain the ability to join sororities despite their selective membership. The unjustness of the new policy becomes worse considering the plethora of competitive non-social groups that use highly dubious standards for choosing members, or are in reality primarily social, but are nonetheless exempt from the policy due to their surface-level characteristics.
The policy rightfully challenges Harvard students to question what final clubs stand for and the impact they have on our view and treatment of each other. I cannot say for certain that my objection to the targeting of sororities should uniformly apply to all non-final club USGSOs, although my interactions with them have informed me of the very different places they occupy in the social scene. There is, however, little rationale in forcing sororities out of existence; doing so completely undermines their function at Harvard as positive entities in the name of “consistency.”