Harvard mulls phasing out frats, sororities, final clubs

A Harvard University committee of students, faculty and staff has recommended phasing out fraternities, sororities and the exclusive groups known as “final clubs,” calling them relics of a bygone era that “profoundly violate” efforts to create a welcoming, inclusive campus.

The proposed policy would extend to all “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” that require some form of pledging to enter.

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 official student groups. It also cuts them off from school endorsement for top fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

“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.

Harvard did not respond to a request for comment on the recommendation, and several finals clubs contacted by CNN declined to comment.

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

“Products behind their time”

The committee heard from people who advocated addressing problems head-on instead of getting rid of the clubs 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 also asked the school to continue seeking resolutions that would lead to reform and not an all-out ban.

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

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. Instead, they tend to perpetuate social structures that discriminate based on gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.

“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.”