When a Harvard committee released its new report on unrecognized single-gender social organizations, it quietly changed the terms of the final club debate. Unlike the original sanctions, which would allow the exclusive clubs to remain if they made a lukewarm commitment to gender inclusivity, the proposed sanctions acknowledge the fundamental inequalities these clubs represent. However, while banning final clubs is a good start, the proposed sanctions do not go far enough in addressing Harvard’s much deeper problems.
The original sanctions were framed as a gender-equity issue—all-male final clubs, the most prestigious and connected organizations on campus, discriminate against women by design. Their problems with drinking and sexual assault appear to follow from their extreme masculinity, a phenomenon not limited to Harvard. Perhaps if the clubs are made co-ed, the argument seemed to go, their worst excesses would be reigned in. With this original framework in mind, Harvard’s leniency towards sororities made sense; the issue was more with “frattiness” than gender segregation itself, but Harvard didn’t want to say that explicitly.
The new report has a different philosophy, with more emphasis on class and the toxicity of a certain kind of institution. It concludes with a quote from Harry Lewis, the former Dean of the College, which strongly condemns the self-segregating nature of Final Clubs: “Students know what to expect when they come to Harvard, and the Clubs do not serve students well as places where they may seek to escape from the basic tenets of the College they have chosen to attend.” In other words, the administration does not like groups that separate rich, connected, male, and largely white students from the rest of a diversifying university.
To say it more succinctly, the committee has a problem with Old Harvard. For most of its history, Harvard was exclusively male, largely white, and very rich. The all-male final clubs originated in this era during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, choosing students from the Boston upper class, blocking out any undesirables; this continues to be their role on campus. Final clubs serve as an embarrassing reminder of Harvard’s past, when admission depended on last name, gender, and a very large bank account. They represent far more than just male entitlement; they are everything aristocratic about America. Perhaps this is why the old sanctions somehow felt both extreme and inadequate; extreme because of the laser focus on gender, and inadequate because gender is far from their only problem.
Detractors have criticized the sanctions for infringing on freedom of assembly. They, of course, are referring to the freedom of the rich to assemble as they always have (the poor are free to assemble somewhere else, perhaps the SOCH). This twisted language of “freedom” is used to defend an outdated sense of entitlement to certain Old Harvard practices, much like how wealthy donors are “free” to use their wealth to influence elections. An old-fashioned sense of privilege, not gender alone, is the heart of the problem.
This sense of privilege is why, even if the suggested ban is approved and implemented, Harvard’s problems will not go away. Final clubs are only the tip of the iceberg — well-connected students are able to access the school through official Old Harvard policies, like legacy admissions and the Z-list, which linger despite Harvard’s theoretical commitment to equity. Harvard’s problems with social spaces follow from the design of the school, where old money coexists uneasily alongside talented low-income students. It’s no wonder that final clubs, the most Old Harvard thing imaginable, have become a flashpoint; however, a ban alone treats the symptoms of Harvard’s inequities and not the deeper cause.
Old Harvard was a place of sexual violence and of rampant classism. That past must be reckoned with, and aspects of it that remain must be taken seriously. Banning final clubs would be a good start, but it does not go far enough. If Harvard wants to become a place where students from all backgrounds are included, it must take steps to change a culture of entitlement. This is a difficult task, but there’s other low-hanging fruit in addition to the sanctions—perhaps, in addition to its relentless pursuit of prep school squash players, Harvard could recruit more students from low-income families outside the northeast. Legacy admissions should have been removed long ago, like at Cambridge and Oxford, but the right thing can still be done today. If Harvard wants to produce more “citizens and citizen-leaders” and fewer Jared Kushners, it would do well to steer clear of the entitled rich.