Universities have a duty to explain why and when participation in campus groups becomes unacceptable in their eyes.
Last week, an email to Harvard undergraduates announced a new university policy. Beginning with the class of 2021, members of single-gender “final clubs,” fraternities, and sororities would be banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student groups and athletic team captaincies as well as from receiving official endorsements for Rhodes, Marshall, and other scholarships. Critics of the new policy argue that the university is infringing on students’ rights to freely associate and imposing political correctness. Supporters see Harvard attempting to reform a culture of sexual assault and taking a justified stance against institutions that perpetuate sexism, racism, and classism.
Stanford has seen similar controversies over what types of events and organizations the university should support. After accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation and violations of previous sanctions, Sigma Alpha Epsilon lost its housing and was put on probation. The Stanford Marching Band similarly faced a year-long travel ban after the Title IX office found it violated university policies on alcohol, controlled substances, sexual harassment, and hazing. Full Moon on the Quad may be abolished or at least seriously changed as a result of allegations that it makes people feel uncomfortable.
Obviously, there must be some rules around university-recognized (or at least university-tolerated) organization and events. And, unlike many other student groups, final clubs have been uniquely unwilling to change. They are predicated on exclusivity (unlike, say, Stanford’s sororities, which give nearly every rushee a bid) and gender segregation. Though Spee and Fox clubs recently began admitting women, Fox’s graduate board, composed of alumni, recently shut it down, suggesting alumni are wary of accepting women.
Final clubs thus bring into focus a question that universities across the US have to ask: whether some traditions and groups are too distasteful even to permit students to join them of their own volition.
Most important, does an organization promote or exacerbate violence? As an extreme example, a university would obviously not recognize a student branch of ISIS. By joining the group, the student is contributing to causes that most agree are fundamentally wrong and objectively harm many people.
It remains to determine whether Greek life or final clubs are somehow comparable to this standard. Harvard claims that final clubs promote violence through sexual assault. A university task force on sexual violence published a report claiming that 47% of female seniors involved in final clubs – by either joining all-female final clubs or attending male final club events – had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.
However, these statistics are somewhat distracting. This number included assaults perpetrated by final club non-members, assaults at all-female final clubs, assaults at locations unrelated to final clubs, and assaults occurring before attending a final club event. According to survey results, 87% of sexual assaults at Harvard occur in dorms, which the university directly controls. Only 16% of assaults occur in spaces used by single-sex organizations (both dorms and final clubs).
Even if we do assume Harvard’s claims that men’s final clubs promote underage drinking and a culture of misogyny, why shouldn’t the university focus on the problem of sexual assault in dorms? Harvard has real control over the place where sexual assault is most prevalent, and could achieve the same results without sanctioning private organizations in a murky move to curtail freedom of association. Banning final clubs also means banning all-female clubs. Even those who believe that male final clubs are misogynistic would be hard-pressed to explain why the university seeks to abolish organizations for all-female fellowship.
Regardless of questions of violence, groups have another standard to meet: whether access to them is universal, or at least based on merit. While it is difficult to find hard statistics, interviews suggest that many students in final clubs already have the advantage of wealth, family background, and connections. Harvard stated that these organizations represented “forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.” The university is reasonably attempting to disincentivize participation by offering students a choice: miss out on leadership positions but enjoy the privileges of a final club, or have the opportunity to take on a student leadership position or fellowship. The standard for sanctioning or banning (versus tolerating) those organizations that conflict with university missions must be very strict, however. Otherwise, a university risks infringing on free association and speech.
The same questions of access are raised at Stanford. Our university aims to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” Does the environment at Stanford create equal opportunities for this success for all its students? Not necessarily. Most elite universities claim to enroll a diverse student body, basing their admissions not only on past accomplishments but also on potential for future achievements. Stanford admissions emphasizes the importance of “personal context.” The inner-city student whose accomplishments aren’t as impressive on paper as the Manhattan private-school student whose doctor father got him a research position in the lab when he was 13 will be considered in light of his circumstances.
However, when students start college, these differences in background don’t disappear. Stanford makes institutional attempts to remedy these inequalities through the Leland Scholars Program, the Summer Engineering Academy, and other efforts. But student organizations selecting their leaders and officers do not necessarily follow the same philosophy as the Stanford admissions office. Selection for leadership positions in student groups primarily depends on merit and connections. Organizations also exist to help students learn a new activity or train students with potential. However academic and social inequalities can still persist.
Finally, is it possible and reasonable for a university to take a more discretionary, case-by-case approach instead of a no-exceptions sanction? If a professor is convinced that final clubs and Greek organizations are genuinely problematic, why couldn’t he choose simply not to recommend a student who belongs to one of them? Professors are capable of evaluating students’ backgrounds and involvement on campus and of considering whether a fellowship should go to a less-advantaged student. This seems to be a reasonable alternative in Harvard’s case.
Imagine a minority, lower-middle-class sorority member at Harvard; it seems unclear that she should automatically be excluded from a Rhodes Scholarship because of her Greek affiliation. One compromise could be to ban final club and Greek members from student leadership and athletic team captaincies, but not from fellowship endorsements, since these could reasonably be handled on a case-by-case basis and are less susceptible to nepotism. They are also more vital to the mission of the university. It is difficult to argue that Harvard has the right to deny academic resources to its students based on their memberships, but more reasonable to say that higher-order leadership positions should only be granted to those who display conduct worthy of those roles.
Certainly, there were more moderate policies which Harvard could have pursued toward reducing sexual violence and the privileges members of these organizations possess over other members of the student body. If similar debates occur at Stanford, the administration should consider these questions. The censuring of Band, Greek life and FMOTQ has been accused of being a series of one-off and ill-thought-through decisions that fail to weigh the competing interests of free association, protection from violence, and equality of opportunity at university. The final club debate gives universities a prime opportunity to set straight exactly where their values lie.
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