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Harvard mulls phasing out frats, sororities, final clubs

Posted July 14

A Harvard University committee has recommended phasing out fraternities, sororities and exclusive groups known as "final clubs," calling them relics of a bygone era that "profoundly violate" efforts to create a hospitable campus.

The proposed policy from the group of of students, faculty and staff would extend to all "unrecognized single-gender social organizations" that require some form of screening to enter, such as pledging, hazing or what's known as "punching."

It would take effect in fall 2018, so all currently enrolled students, including incoming students in fall 2017, would be exempt, creating a transition period that would put an end to the organizations by May 2022.

The recommendation marks the school's latest effort to minimize the influence of exclusionary social clubs.

Starting this fall, a new policy makes undergraduate members of such groups ineligible for leadership positions on sports teams and recognized student groups. It also cuts them off from school endorsement for top fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

For now, the measure is just a preliminary recommendation, Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana said in an email to students Wednesday. Students are invited to share feedback with the committee before it offers formal recommendations to the school's dean and president later.

'Strong decisive action' needed

The proposal comes as the fraternity system in particular faces harsh scrutiny and questions about its future after a series of disturbing events involving excessive drinking, sexual violence and hazing on campuses nationwide.

Even though a relatively small amount of students participate in such groups, "the effects of those organizations permeate the fabric of campus culture," the report says.

"Time after time, the social organizations have demonstrated behavior inconsistent with an inclusive campus culture, a disregard for the personhood and safety of fellow students, and an unwillingness to change -- even as new students join them over generations," the committee said in a 22-page report.

"This leads the Committee to believe that, without strong decisive action, little positive change is likely to occur."

The committee took into account feedback and surveys from the campus community and similar policies at other schools. Williams College adopted a similar policy in 1992 that carries possible penalties of suspension or expulsion. At Bowdoin College, students who join fraternities or similar selective membership social organizations face permanent dismissal.

Princeton University delays entry into fraternities and sororities until after freshman year. But Harvard said research suggests that such half measures did not achieve the same positive effect as outright bans.

Harvard's proposed policy includes unspecified disciplinary action to be determined by the administrative board. Here's how it reads:

"Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the College. The College will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the Administrative Board."

The report acknowledges the viewpoints of many students and alumni who claim a profound sense of belonging in the groups. For them, the groups offer a place where they feel at home, sheltered from the stresses of academic life, where lifelong friendships form.

"Their sense of belonging, however, comes at the expense of the exclusion of the vast majority of Harvard undergraduates," the report says.

CNN contacted members of several final clubs and Greek organizations for comment. None replied.

Rising senior Aaron Slipper, 21, called the recommendations "infantilizing." He bristled at the idea that exclusivity is inherently harmful.

"This kind of administrative overreach into our private lives is deeply disturbing. I also think that the issue of exclusivity, which seems to be the issue pinpointed by this report, is also inherently subjective," he said.

"Every group must be, to some extent, exclusive... Exclusivity is not harmful in a way that would justify administrative censure."

'Products behind their time'

The committee heard from people who suggested directly addressing problems within the clubs instead of getting rid of them altogether. For example, when it comes to underage drinking and sexual assault, some recommended asking police to take a leading role in investigations. Supporters of this approach asked the school to continue seeking resolutions that would lead to reform and not an all-out ban.

But such an approach would merely put them on the defense, waiting for the next calamity, instead of taking preventative steps, the report said.

It's not just a problem for the fraternity system, the report says. All single-gender programs appear to be at odds with school efforts to embrace diversity. Groups such as final clubs tend to perpetuate social structures that discriminate based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, the report said.

"The final clubs in particular were products of their time. Due to their resistance to change over the decades, they have lapsed into products behind their time," the committee wrote.

"Despite repeated attempts to encourage them to reform, there seems to be no simple solution that will bring them into greater accord with the forward-looking aspirations of the University."

Committee members did not unanimously support the recommendations.

In a dissenting opinion, Professor David Haig called the report's proposals "an escalation of the conflict between unrecognized social organizations and Harvard College."

He said he was unconvinced that the proposals would remedy the problems it seeks to address. Such a policy would favor principles of nondiscrimination and inclusivity over respect for student autonomy and freedom of association. Moreover, he suggested there was not enough quantitative data to support the claim that the recommendations accurately reflected a broad consensus among students.

"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," he wrote. "Harvard College can do better in reasoning with data."

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