Last week a federal judge in Massachusetts issued a ruling allowing several fraternities and students to proceed with their Title IX sex-discrimination case against Harvard. The students are challenging Harvard’s decision to sanction students who join single-sex organizations. The sororities in the case had argued that the policy hurt female students by denying them access to mentoring and networking opportunities. But ironically, because the sororities have lost membership due to Harvard’s policy, the judge dismissed two of the sorority plaintiffs in the case on the grounds that they no longer had active Harvard chapters and, thus, lack standing to sue.
The controversial policy, implemented with the entering class of 2017, subjects to punishment any undergraduate student who joins an “unrecognized” single-sex social organization. Students who join such organizations may not hold any on-campus leadership position, captain an athletic team, or be recommended for prestigious postgraduate fellowships. The federal lawsuit is one of two cases that seek to bar Harvard from enforcing the sanctions policy. The state-court case argues that the policy violates students’ right to free association. The federal case argues that it is a violation of Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination.
Harvard administrators have offered shifting justifications for the policy, claiming first that all-male social clubs (including fraternities and Harvard’s storied “final clubs”) were responsible for a disproportionate share of sexual assaults, and later arguing that such groups “restrict women’s liberty.” Currently, Harvard claims that all single-sex groups are inconsistent with its “core institutional values.”
Whatever the rationale, the policy reeks of paternalism. Although membership in a single-sex organization can be empowering for women, offering a haven for women where they can un-self-consciously grow and develop leadership skills, Harvard has determined that it must prohibit women from joining groups without men for their own good.
Harvard is, of course, not required to host fraternities and sororities on campus. But by banning membership in all off-campus single-sex clubs, Harvard is punishing more than just those who hope to participate in Greek life. Indeed, under the policy, it seems that Harvard could punish any of its students who join an all-female singing group, an all-male Bible study, or a single-sex service organization, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Daughters of Isabella.
Perhaps most troubling are the serious freedom-of-association issues raised by long reach of the Harvard policy. If Harvard can prevent students from socializing with members of the same sex off-campus, what is to prevent Harvard from punishing those who socialize in other ways deemed antithetical its “core institutional values?” Will it punish those who belong to a church that refuses to ordain women or marry same-sex couples? How much power does Harvard have to determine the social groups to which its students can belong?
Sadly, since its implementation, the policy has resulted in the elimination of nearly every women’s social organization previously available to female students. Thus, what began as an effort to crack down on sexual assault and provide equal social opportunities to men and women has resulted in fewer safe spaces for women. Harvard has thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Irrespective of what happens in court, the fact remains that, in the name of protecting women, Harvard has, in fact, eliminated opportunities for women on campus. If all else fails, perhaps Harvard might yet change its mind. The college is under the new leadership of President Lawrence S. Bacow, who himself had a “wonderful experience” as a fraternity member at M.I.T.