Old and busted: Women need safe spaces on campuses to protect themselves! New hotness: Sororities must now open their doors to men! In their zeal to impose their own standards on the freedom of association, Harvard University now requires all student organizations to admit both men and women. One sorority has decided not to play along:
Two years ago, Harvard University issued an ultimatum to single-gender student groups.
Go co-ed. Or forfeit members’ opportunities to hold leadership positions on campus and to win the university’s endorsement for prestigious postgraduate fellowships.
Last week, a Harvard sorority became the first student organization to choose a third option: shutting down. The national Delta Gamma organization announced that its Zeta Phi-Cambridge Area chapter would close. The choice to disband was made in a May vote by members of the local chapter, which triggered a 60-day comment period, according to a statement from the national association.
The dissolution of Harvard’s chapter of Delta Gamma, established in 1994, highlights the ongoing debate — which has roiled the Ivy League campus — over gender discrimination, sexual harassment and freedom of association. In particular, it reveals the difficulty that all-female groups face in responding to penalties designed to stop forms of mostly male predation that have brought schools into conflict with federal law.
Other groups have decided to bend to the administration’s will. Kappa Alpha Theta announced that it would transition from a sorority to a “gender-neutral social group” with sanctions pending at Harvard, ending a 25-year run as a sorority at Harvard. That reversed their previous opposition to the policy, expressed as late as earlier this year, when they held a female-only recruitment drive in the spring semester.
The men aren’t going as quietly. Several fraternities hired a law firm in the spring to look at their legal options, although they stressed that a lawsuit was their “last resort.” So far they have not changed their policies or taken legal action, but it might take a denial of a fellowship or some other penalty to be imposed first to gain standing for a lawsuit. Instead, they’re putting their hope in the PROSPER Act, which would penalize universities for retaliating against single-sex student organizations by withholding federal funds (Section 125). The bill has not moved in the House, however, and seems unlikely to pass in time to impact the situation at Harvard.
This raises two tough questions. First, what role should a university’s administrators play in determining the limits of free association on their campuses? There is a broad consensus, clearly, that racism — or better put, exclusionary policies based on ethnicity — aren’t tolerable for historical and present-day reasons. However, most other student groups are organized around common interests and identities — among them, LGBT groups, religious organizations, political activists, language interests, and so on. Many of those aren’t exclusionary, but some (such as religious and political groups) do limit leadership positions to those within the group identity for good reasons — to support the specific mission of the organization. LBGT groups should not be forced to appoint heterosexual members to leadership just as Catholic groups should not be forced to appoint non-Catholics, and so on. This is why freedom of association works better than imposed association.
Fraternities and sororities organize specifically on gender, however, which prompts the second question: Is there any value in single-gender social organizations, and should that determination belong to the administration rather than the students themselves? Harvard is a private institution, which means that they have more flexibility to set up their campus than public universities, but this is more of a moral question than a legal one.
In the case of Greek societies, the answer seems to present itself in their sustained popularity. Sororities have no shortage of women wanting to pledge female-only organizations, and the same with fraternities and men. The students themselves find significant value in single-gender Greek orgs, and perhaps women in particular, given the issues of safety and harassment raised on campuses these days. Furthermore, while the organizations are separate, they appear to have equality of representation and access on most campuses. If the demand existed for co-ed Greek societies, nothing appears to be stopping chapters from opening to meet that demand.
The better way for Harvard to have addressed what it sees as gender-based injustice would have been to encourage the growth of co-ed houses. Instead, under the guise of preparing students for the “real world,” they chose to impose their own social agenda on existing organizations and to punish those who disagree with them by cutting them off from the benefits of Harvard’s educational programs. Unfortunately, the way things are going, that may well be preparation for the world to come.