Do Unto Other Harvard Students

One of America’s most prestigious colleges may try to force its undergraduates to be more egalitarian towards one another––but not to anyone else.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

At Harvard University, a faculty panel empowered to study undergraduate social organizations like fraternities, sororities, and “final clubs” has issued a controversial new recommendation: that denying official recognition to these groups is not enough—they should be gradually but totally eliminated from campus life.

Their original transgression was discriminating on the basis of gender. But even co-ed versions of these organizations ought to be verboten, according to the panel’s majority. “The Committee considered the importance of allowing our students to select their own social spaces and friends,” their recently released report declared, “but we also recognize principles such as inclusiveness and equality, which many members of the Harvard community consider of paramount importance to our mission."

Concerns about the social organizations are understandable.

For young people, a burdensome aptitude test is all but required to apply; only 5 percent of those who do so are admitted, under opaque, inconsistent standards; even as those lucky few celebrate, the rejects often report feeling excluded and marginalized; the exclusivity invariably perpetuates inequalities that last long after graduation; and those on the inside lose touch with the real world they will soon encounter.

Wait. I’m sorry. That was actually a general description of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, not its unrecognized fraternities, sororities, and “final clubs.”

My mistake!

Here is the panel’s case against those unrecognized, undergraduate organizations:

  • They are “an outsized part of student life.”
  • They “directly and negatively influence the undergraduate experience for many students who are not themselves members.”
  • Their “discriminatory practices” undermine “our educational mission and principles.”
  • They perpetuate “social structures that discriminate based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.”
  • They “create social divisions.”

A summation of sorts comes in this paragraph:

To be sure, many students who are members of the USGSOs report a profound sense of belonging. For them, their organization offers a place where they feel “at home” at Harvard, sheltered from the typical stresses of academic life. They report making steadfast friends. Their sense of belonging, however, comes at the expense of the exclusion of the vast majority of Harvard undergraduates. Of course, that is the definition of selective-membership clubs: some belong, some don’t. However, it is the invidious manner in which such clubs form their memberships and generate their guest lists (in the case of those that host parties) that makes them incompatible with the goals and standards of Harvard University.

The faculty panel’s approach is quintessentially progressive. As they see it, the impulse among undergraduates to form exclusive in-groups is not hard-wired and ineradicable; rather, it is the result of flawed institutions affecting malleable individuals, and can be eradicated so long as authorities have the power to limit freedom of association. Thus, Harvard can assemble a mixture of America’s most ambitious meritocrats and most privileged legacy admits and induce them to live as egalitarians for four years or so, before they go off to Goldman Sachs or Stanford Law School or a Fulbright scholarship or Corey Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Lest you underestimate the faculty panel’s faith in central administration, consider that its members expanded the scope of their advice to encompass all student organizations at Harvard. In their view, Harvard’s sanctioned, independent student organizations, or “ISOs,” would serve students better if they were much less independent. To “demonstrate the seriousness of Harvard College’s convictions in fostering a better undergraduate experience for our students,” they urge Harvard to evaluate the “training” and “procedures” at those organizations to ensure that all are “optimal,” by which they mean that they “follow the comprehensive set of guidelines.”

What better way to train young leaders than to assign elders to inform them of “best practices” and ensure that they faithfully “demonstrate their robust compliance”?

In contrast, the lone named dissenter on the faculty panel offered a conservative perspective. “The sanctions policies have involved a conflict between competing goods: On the one hand, respect for student autonomy and freedom of association; on the other hand, nondiscrimination and inclusivity,” he wrote. The report “strongly favors the latter over the former goods,” he continued. “I continue to favor a balance more on the side of student autonomy because I am unconvinced that the policy, when implemented, will solve the latter problems.” What’s more, he added, the faculty panel’s assessments of Harvard’s campus climate were not robust:

We have somewhat better information on student opinions from the 2016 referendum on the sanctions policy. Of the 3,042 students who voted, 1,820 voted in favor of repeal of the sanctions, 923 voted against repeal, and 299 abstained (my data come from the report in the Harvard Crimson).

The majority of undergraduates did not vote in the referendum but of those who voted 60% were in favor of repeal and 30% voted against repeal. There is a disconnect between these numbers on student opinion and the general tone of this committee’s report which emphasizes deep unhappiness among students with the social environment created by the clubs (I will use club generically for final clubs, fraternities, sororities, and like organizations). The various committees on USGSO policy, including this one, have never sought quantitative unbiased data on student opinions but have relied on selected comments of students opposed to the clubs …

There is no doubt that some students, faculty, and deans find the clubs deeply offensive but well-informed social policy requires knowledge of the full-range of student opinions. Harvard College can do better in reasoning with data.

Were I at Harvard, I imagine I would dislike the Finals Clubs with the same stubborn vehemence that I disliked even the frats and sororities that gave me free alcohol when I visited friends at USC and UCLA and UC Berkeley during my undergraduate years. But I don’t know what any social organizations are like at Harvard, which possesses a right to ban them in a way that a public institution wouldn’t, even if doing so is illiberal, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argues.

I, too, tend to prefer liberal approaches; at the same time, I value diversity and experimentation among private colleges, especially when they don’t undermine the pursuit of truth. For all those reasons, I’ll refrain from opining on the best way forward. But I do want to return to the irony lurking beneath this controversy. For is there any American institution that trades on unapologetic exclusion and perpetuates inegalitarian arrangements that benefit an in-group more than Harvard?

There is a conservative defense of its approach to higher education. But that defense is at stark odds with the values the faculty panel insists are core to Harvard College. If they believe in progressivism, and prize non-discrimination, inclusion, and belonging, they could urge any number of changes in the way their institution operates.

After all, as Harvard grad Ross Douthat once observed, everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows that elite universities “are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.”

Harvard’s admissions office could establish a minimum academic threshold one must possess to successfully pass Harvard classes, then choose among all applicants who meet it in a lottery. Rather than flatter undergraduates about the leadership skills they will attain at Harvard, it could emphasize to them that they are no more equipped to lead, or deserving of leadership positions, than graduates of other colleges, many of whom are more wise or ethical or experienced or loyal to fellow citizens.

Jared Kushner graduated from Harvard in 2003 with a B.A. in government. (Reuters)

And so long as it is willing to make heavy-handed interventions in student social life, it needn’t stop at merely encouraging all Harvard students to socialize with all other Harvard students—it could take the radical step of encouraging mixing with non-Harvard students. Given the outsized benefits of who one meets at Harvard above and beyond what one learns there, imagine the egalitarian returns of, say, building more dorms and intermingling rooms of Harvard students with adjacent rooms rented at a subsidy to students attending nearby community colleges. Maintaining academic excellence doesn’t require any exclusivity in residential life.

Elite colleges and universities dedicate a lot of attention time, money, and effort seeking small gains in social equality among students—sometimes with good reason and to good effect! The phenomena is nevertheless strange to observe at times, given how small a problem inequality among students already attending institutions like Harvard is compared to inequality between Harvard students and the rest of America.

Within its walls, Harvard may well veer toward progressivism, for better or worse. But on the whole, I expect Harvard to remain among America’s most conservative institutions, unapologetically marshaling an endowment that stretches to tens of billions to the lasting advantage of today’s students and tomorrow’s Harvard alumni.

If you want to complain, don’t go to the Harvard Club. They won’t let you in.

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