BOSTON — Harvard University is upholding a policy that pressures secretive all-male social clubs to accept students of any gender, its top leadership announced on Tuesday.
In a private meeting on Monday, the university’s governing board voted to approve a May 2016 rule saying students who join single-gender clubs are forbidden from leading campus groups or serving as captains of sports teams. The rule also says the university, based in Cambridge, won’t back those students for major scholarships.
University administrators created the rule to spur change among male social groups known as final clubs, including some that date to the 18th century and count former U.S. presidents among their past members. Recently, the clubs have been accused of problems with alcohol and sexual assault.
A statement from Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, and William F. Lee, a senior fellow of the university’s governing board, said the overall impact of gender-exclusive groups has been negative.
“The final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogenous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different,” they said, adding that students today are diverse in many ways.
The rule also applies to all-female clubs and to fraternities and sororities that are open to Harvard students even though the university doesn’t officially recognize them. Some clubs have already expanded admission rules in response to the rule. The Delphic, an all-male club, and the Bee, a female final club that formed in the 1990s, merged in August and will now share a clubhouse near campus.
Some alumni and faculty members have opposed the rule, saying it limits students’ freedom of association and speech. Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and a former Harvard dean, led an effort to overturn the sanctions, but the university’s faculty voted against his proposal at a November meeting.
The governing board’s Monday decision solidified Harvard’s stance against final clubs, which have faced increasing scrutiny from administrators. A university committee reported in March that group members have “deeply misogynistic attitudes” and a “sense of sexual entitlement.”
A university survey found that 47 percent of female seniors who interacted socially with the clubs had experienced non-consensual sexual contact. Students and alumni from some clubs denounced those accusations and denied that they have problems with sexual assault or harassment.
Groups that represent fraternities and sororities also have protested the rule, saying their groups provide enriching experiences for students. But the statement from Faust and Lee appeared to rule out the possibility that Harvard will move to embrace Greek life, saying, “we should not become a Greek school, much less one where these organizations exist outside the college’s supervision.”
Faust had previously said she would make the final decision, but the university’s governing board, known as the Harvard Corporation, joined the decision as Faust prepares to step down.
The option chosen by the board was one of three recommended by a faculty committee in September, and the leadership says it preserves students’ choice to join groups but with consequences.
“Ultimately, students have the freedom to decide which is more important to them: membership in a gender-discriminatory organization or access to those privileges and resources,” the statement said.