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Harvard’s Ban on Social Clubs: Actions Speak Louder than Words

“We must remember that limiting some speech opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own. If some words are to be treated as equivalent to physical violence and silenced or even prosecuted, who is to decide which words?” —President Drew Faust, May 2017 Commencement Address

In the wake of Harvard president Drew Faust’s recent commencement address, I was hoping for a wider-spread recognition of the need for genuinely free expression on campus. But my hope was quickly deflated when the news broke that a university-appointed committee proposed a ban on social clubs. According to the committee, its proposal is in the spirit of “Harvard College’s commitment to non-discrimination, inclusion, and a healthy social climate . . .”:

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 Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations (USGSO), July 2017

This proposed action speaks far louder than President Faust’s words.

Harvard’s threat to ban students from associating with independently run social clubs is par for the far-left course. Aside from the overblown drama behind then-President Larry Summers’s 2005 comments on addressing female underrepresentation in the sciences, Harvard has done a relatively good job of avoiding the outrageous headlines of its Ivy League neighbors. For example: Yale’s banning of certain Halloween costumes because of offended students, Columbia’s postponing law school finals owing to distressed students, and Brown’s… well, Brown is Brown. But now we’re seeing this “cultural phenomenon” continue here at Harvard. To learn that my alma mater might join in on such policies more worthy of satire than emulation is disappointing and frustrating; it validates another means of authoritarian intolerance as a “problem-solving” tool even for the smallest of interpersonal slights.

Road to hell paved with good intentions

I understand that the university wishes to model for its future leaders a culture that fosters an environment of inclusion. Its intent is to prevent situations where its students might be subjected to feelings of exclusion or marginalization, whether that is gender-based, race-based, socioeconomic-based, etc. The key word here, however, is “foster,” not “force.” For Harvard to force students to keep away from non-Harvard-approved social organizations is neither wise nor practical, nor is it in the spirit of freedom.

I hope that upon further reflection Harvard will see that the policy is fundamentally misguided. The proposed order, essentially prohibiting students from associating with an outside social organization, seems more appropriate for a high school. The students the university seeks to protect are between the ages of 18 and 22—hardly children. They are old enough to join the military, vote in an election, and perform other acts worthy of adulthood. To think that bright 18-to-22-year-old Harvard students (or really any college students) must be protected from trying social situations is unhealthy, illogical, and frankly impossible.

You are not entitled to the pleasure of my company

There have been times when I wasn’t able to access a nonsanctioned social club. Was it a crappy feeling at the time? Of course. But a more unfortunate scenario would have been if my self-confidence never experienced opportunities to mature, to “get over it,” and not let a social letdown turn into a debilitating force. That would make life quite difficult, for example, in New York City (aka Harvard round 2 for a plurality of undergrads). In spite of NYC being an extension of college’s far-left liberal milieu, the city is home to places and people who do not forgive the whimpering of those who demand to be included at all costs. Might I suggest that a group of gentlemen try getting into a nightclub after midnight without being in the company of women and without displaying large financial wherewithal and a willingness to part with it? Or perhaps any Harvard student could approach a members-only organization and simply expect to be given access, and maybe a prime tee time? These examples are ridiculous, because we all understand that people are entitled to form voluntary associations and include the people they choose.

Pretending that Harvard is a respite from that fact of life is not only ridiculous but also potentially harmful. Isn’t the mere application process to colleges, most of all Harvard, fundamentally an exclusionary process that considers many nonacademic criteria, including gender and race? Millennials already have a bad rap for being perceived as entitled—let’s not humor the stereotype by pretending they actually are entitled to everyone’s company.

The danger of arbitrary enforcement

Now let’s address the sketchy elephant in the room: sexual assaults and binge drinking. These are dangers faced by college students across the country. Banning private social clubs is at least ostensibly aimed at targeting these problems. I’m sure the committee is hoping the ban would see a reduction in misogyny and debauchery, which have come to be perceived as part and parcel of a social club scene. But would it? Such deplorable acts occur in many places outside of a social club. For example, at least one survey shows sexual assault occurs most commonly in dormitories.

A social club ban is an immature and, more importantly, an ineffective attempt to address these real issues. Further, enforcement of a social-club ban would only encourage secret affiliation. The unintended consequence seems so clear that the scenario would be more like a peripherally intended consequence. For the ban to take effect per the committee’s intent, the prohibition would have to encourage students to spy on one another, to force them to “out” their social preferences, and to swear fealty only to the open Harvard, where the only party is the one to which everyone is invited. That sounds like a real peach of a university, where one could foster a persecution complex and learn nothing of autonomy, open honesty, or overcoming personal challenges.

Pardon my slippery slope

I vehemently dislike “slippery slope” arguments because if an opinion is worthy of support then there are better values-based or logical ways to refute opposing positions. So with that, please forgive me for sounding like that’s where I’m going.

With the possible demise of an independent social scene, how will the university go on to define “social club” and subsequently apply the ban? In today’s pop-politicized campus culture of calling out “privilege” as a means of disqualification, it’s easy to conclude that a stereotypical “rich white boys” club ought to be within the scope of the ban. However, in the spirit of true equality, the faculty would have to follow through with dismantling other clubs, including female clubs. Such groups often serve a greater purpose—friendships, relationships, academic and professional collaborations, etc.—based on something uniquely shared by a given group of individuals. This ban prohibiting students’ social activity will be to the detriment of those who would otherwise have enjoyed the collegial subcommunities that spring from these independent organizations.

Harvard’s proposed ban isn’t clear just how far the prohibition extends. For example, I worked for the Harvard Crimson, a student-run independent newspaper (“made up of Harvard students”). Students must pass a task-based application process to become a Crimson editor (“exclusionary”). The Crimson serves not just an editorial but social and professional networking functions as well (“social organization”). According to how the committee defined prohibited organizations, The Crimson would seem like a potential candidate. This slope might just slip into a more obvious form of censorship. So would Harvard’s proposed policy require dissolving The Crimson?

At a campus culture cross-roads

Faculties at many universities, not just Harvard, are now struggling with the reality that campus coddling has gone too far. As frustrating as it seems, I take it as an indication that progress is upon us—progress away from such a cosseting culture. Harvard’s President Faust openly acknowledged the dangerous possibilities when limiting certain forms of expression but not others. I hope she practices what she preached just some months ago. I hope she and the faculty will not prohibit students from expressing themselves socially (not to mention politically, but of course that deserves its own dedicated editorials).

Please limit the role of the university to be one of guidance and awareness, not force and prohibition.


Allison Lee Pillinger Choi graduated from Harvard in 2006. She is the author of Bleeding Heart Conservatives: Why It’s Good to Be Right. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter: @GoodToBeRight and at bleedingheartconservatives.com.



Complement with Stella Morabito on how to sort truth from propaganda, Russell Kirk on the purpose of a liberal education, and R. J. Snell on what a successful college education looks like

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