Still White, Still Male: The Anachronism of Harvard's Final Clubs

Final Clubs are more difficult to ignore. In a 2013 survey on the effects of Final Clubs at Harvard, The Crimson concludes that “while female clubs are not perceived to have a significant impact on today’s campus social scene, male clubs are perceived to have an impact.” The article goes on to report, “A majority of respondents—54 percent—said they believe the male clubs have negative or very negative social effects on campus. Twenty-five percent characterized the social impact of male clubs as positive or very positive, and just 21 percent of respondents said they believe the male clubs have a neutral social impact on campus.”

One reason for this controversy is the tight control the club’s male leaders issue over their parties’ guest lists. According to Stephanie, “freshman guys are never let in, and older non-member guys are very rarely let in.” Girls, on the other hand, are usually allowed inside—especially younger ones. Stephanie estimates that attendance at Harvard's final club parties is 3-to-1 female. 

What gives Harvard's final clubs so much power, even though only 25 percent of students see them as a positive force on campus? The clubs have a monopoly on spaces where underage students can consume alcohol without fear of legal repercussions. This is true of Princeton's eating clubs as well: Because the clubs are distinct from both their universities and their townships, police need probable cause to enter their properties. Knowing this, the clubs take major precautions to keep their parties from getting out of hand. They hire security firms and bartenders, and assign members to act as sober safety monitors. As Jim puts it, “Why would you serve alcohol to people you don't know when it carries a legal risk?" This caution, he argues, is a lot of what drives the perceived "exclusivity" of these parties.

What Harvard lacks are appealing and accessible alternatives to these exclusive groups. At Princeton, by comparison, only six of the 11 eating clubs still clubs still choose their members through the selection process known as "bicker." In the late 1960s, after Princeton President Robert F. Goheen called the bicker system "brutal and unsatisfactory," student leaders worked to make the process more open and inclusive. Over the next decade, many of the clubs gave up on bicker altogether. Today, five of Princeton's eating clubs accept members on a "sign-in" basis. A student might not get into his club of choice, but no student who can pay the fee is excluded from the eating club experience. (Because of the fee, Princeton's clubs, like Harvard's, do favor wealthy students, though the eating clubs offer some amount of financial aid to those who need it.)

In another progressive coup, a 1990 court order forced Princeton to integrate women into its eating clubs. (Harvard's final clubs got around the court order by moving off-campus.) In 2011, my senior year at Princeton, my club, Cap and Gown, had a female president, and most of the clubs had at least one female officer. At Princeton, women have real power and sway in the social system.

Moreover, apart from “members only” nights, any non-member at Princeton can attend a party at any eating club so long as a member gives him or her a pass. The frontiers are fairly fluid, as members are typically generous about giving away passes to both close friends and loose connections.

***

If the Princeton social structure represents the next stage in Harvard’s evolution, Yale's represents its final one. At Yale, no single entity dominates the scene. Students might position themselves to get “tapped” for a secret society such as Skull and Bones, but those groups rarely impact the lives of students who aren't in them.

A recent Yale graduate, whom I will call George, explains: “Secret Societies are groups of around 15 to 20 students who have mandatory hang-out time every Thursday and Sunday evening during their senior year at Yale. In other words, they are random groups of individuals brought together to get to know each other better.” Everyone I spoke to agreed with George, confirming that the main point of a Secret Society is for members to spend quality time together. At group meetings, one member will present his autobiography to his peers while everyone eats and drinks.

As with final clubs and eating clubs, though, family wealth and prominence plays a role in the selection process at Yale. George, who was not in a club, says, “Given that one of the goals of societies in general is to develop a network of highly connected and powerful individuals, students who came from ‘elite’ families may have gotten selected as members for that reason. This only plays a role in the most prestigious societies, though.”

Another Yale alum, who I will call Chris, was in a club and says, “The big ones target personalities on campus. For example, the captain of the football team and the editor in chief of Yale Daily News get automatic bids to Skulls. So it’s less about white, wealthy, and elite than reputation on campus.”

A student might get sore about knowing the societies exist and not being in one—especially if a good friend is conspicuously busy on Thursday and Sunday evening. But that this is as far as most complaints go at Yale. Most of the societies, and all of the most prestigious ones, have an equal number of male and female members. The “landed” ones have buildings on campus, but they do not use them for throwing exclusive parties. Their selection process may be elitist, but the clubs don't play a significant role in nightlife or non-members' overall university experience.

In fact, no particular group dominates Yale's social life. A recent Yale graduate whom I will call Gary estimates that the Greek scene accounts for 20 percent of students. The major hubs are the natural communities that form on sports teams, the newspaper, or Model UN, for example. The 12 residential colleges, to which students are randomly assigned at the beginning of their freshman year, also become epicenters of social life.

In Fitzgerald’s time, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale really did resemble exclusive country clubs; admission itself was essentially open only to those from upper-class families. Today, the three universities go to great lengths to welcome and support students from diverse backgrounds. Though the social scenes at Princeton and Yale do, in some circumstances, favor students from wealthy backgrounds, Harvard’s system stands out as particularly antiquated.  At a time when the university is welcoming its most diverse class in history, and offering financial aid to nearly 60 percent of students, its exclusive, male-dominated social scene continues to send a mixed message.

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Philip Sopher writes for and produces The Atlantic's Business Channel.

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