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Gender Discrimination at Harvard

Higher Education

By Drew Logsdon (Western Kentucky)

The nation's oldest institution of higher education continued its effort to punish students who chose to become members of single-gender institutions this year. This time, there is a twist that has left some confused as to the egalitarian standards set forth when all-female social groups were given a reprieve for a period of at least three years.

The story of how Harvard University arrived at its present position begins more than a year ago in the spring of 2016. Administrators enacted a new policy that would ban members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations. They were also marked as ineligible for serving as athletic team captains or in leadership roles in recognized student organizations and mark them as ineligible for coveted endorsements to Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. It is important to note that fraternities, sororities and final clubs are “not formally recognized by the College,” according to University President Drew G. Faust. A critical piece of this policy was that it would not affect current students, and instead, enforcement would begin with the Class of 2021.

By effectively cutting off access to fundamental leadership and educational opportunities, it seemed that Harvard’s policy was intended to suffocate single-gender organizations, lest they alter their fundamental and historic framework. If they did, then certainly that would put many of these single-gender organizations at odds with the policies of the national organizations they were constituents of and fracture those critical relationships.

At the time, the decision drew the ire and attention of many including the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations (NALFO), the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors (AFA), and many female students on campus who were members. In a joint statement issued by the leaders of NPC, NIC, NALFO, and AFA the message was clear: “We urge Harvard to reconsider this policy. Not only does it deny students the basic right of free association, it penalizes them for involvement in fraternities and sororities — experiences that foster leadership, personal growth and the very sense of engagement college is designed to create.”

Each group issued additional statements that touched upon concerns they had, ranging from the removal of groups that were welcome homes to underrepresented students to attempting to control students through “top-down policy rather than mentorship and professional support.”

But what was the rationale for such a significant shift — not recognizing fraternities and sororities to punishing their members — from Harvard? Throughout this process, The Harvard Crimson executed amazing coverage and an article published in March of 2017 seemed to shed some light on the shifting motives behind the policy. What began as concern about sexual assault and a proactive approach to addressing it, especially in regards to final clubs, turned into a focus on gender exclusivity. As the piece pointed out, “The administration’s new rationale — one which focuses almost entirely on gender equity, and not sexual assault, as the motivating factor behind the sanctions — is one some faculty feel is more reasonable.”

But then came another shift in the policy at the end of March, when Harvard announced that all-female sororities and final clubs were to be exempt from the policy with a three- to five-year bridge program. The committee in charge of implementing the policy against single-gender organizations wrote that it, “supports the idea of continuing to allow the female final clubs and sororities to operate with gender-focused missions, with the understanding that the positive contributions of those organizations to the campus community would be assessed in three to five years.”

This shift again prompted a response from the NIC: “Harvard’s original policy trampled students’ association rights, and it now also serves as a blatant form of gender discrimination, which must be vigorously challenged. We strongly urge Harvard to reconsider their decision and accept our repeated offers to collaborate on solutions that create greater inclusivity, improve campus culture and respect student rights.”

This brings the story back to today with the upcoming fall welcoming the Class of 2021 to Harvard but with looming consequences now just for male students who might choose to exercise a freedom entitled to all in this nation’s Bill of Rights. It is doubtful that this story will end here, but one can only guess as to where it goes from here, basing judgement on what has already been a confusing, if not misleading, roller-coaster ride of policy creation.

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