Friday, October 7, 2016

FAQ on the Nondiscrimination Motion

The signatories to the Nondiscrimination Motion (see below) are frequently asked, in various ways, to explain the context, intent, and effects of the Motion. What follows are responses prepared by a few of the signatories.

Q: In simple language, what does the motion say?
A: That Harvard should not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join.

Q: Why are you bringing this motion?
A: The motion reaffirms a principle that has guided Harvard throughout its modern history. However, Dean Khurana and President Faust announced a new policy last spring: In the future, students will be ineligible for certain College distinctions (being a team captain or being nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, for example) if they belong to any unrecognized single-gender social organization (USGSO) consisting entirely of Harvard students (including any of the final clubs and certain of the sororities and fraternities to which Harvard students belong). Our motion would prevent the new USGSO policy from taking effect while firmly establishing the broad principle that students’ private affiliations are their own business, not Harvard’s. Because the motion codifies common understandings and current practice, we are aware of no other effect it would have on College operations.

Q: Why are you sticking up for the final clubs?
A: We are not defending the final clubs any more than the Supreme Court defends flag-burning. It doesn’t matter whether we like the final clubs or not; students have a right to belong to organizations of which we disapprove, just as they have a right to read books we find objectionable.

Q: But as a private institution, isn’t Harvard free to restrict students’ rights?
A: We are not lawyers and we offer no opinion about whether the USGSO policy is lawful. But as a general principle, those who are students at Harvard should be as free in their rights of speech and association as they are as private citizens. Harvard’s responsibility is not to restrict those freedoms on their behalf but to help them learn to exercise those freedoms wisely. While Harvard may certainly seek to educate and even to warn students about club memberships, learning to make moral choices entails the right to make, in their private lives, what Harvard may consider moral mistakes.

Q: Aren’t some organizations so extremely odious that everyone would agree students shouldn’t join them?
A: The motion speaks not to what students should do but what they may do. Current Harvard policy specifically prohibits asking job candidates about club memberships of any kind. Students who are candidates for Harvard distinctions are owed similar respect for their private choices.

Q: Are you sure Harvard hasn’t in the past judged people by their organizational affiliations?
A: Certainly in Harvard’s Puritan days, but we are not aware of examples within living memory. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1954, against withering attacks from Washington, Harvard’s president defended FAS professor Wendell Furry’s right to join the Communist party without being sanctioned by the University. In 1992, when Harvard deliberated on how to reconcile ROTC’s discriminatory policies with the participation of Harvard students as cadets, the Verba Committee specifically rejected as “unacceptably paternalistic” the option of sanctioning students for joining ROTC.

Q: Isn’t it hyperbole to bring up McCarthyism in this context? This is not a civil liberties issue. It’s about how Harvard as a private institution relates to a few obnoxious clubs comprised entirely of Harvard students.
A: The test cases for erosion of fundamental civil liberties often involve offensive activities. Erosion of anyone’s basic civil rights sets a precedent for wider encroachments at a later date—a broad principle that Harvard should be teaching, rather than undermining, through its decisions about student life. Harvard students should not have to sacrifice their free association rights even if Harvard can lawfully restrict those rights.

Q: The USGSO policy stops no one from doing anything. It just says that you can’t represent Harvard if you belong to one of these clubs. What’s wrong with that?
A: A worthy Rhodes candidate, for example, does not become less worthy when she is discovered to belong to a sorority. So the USGSO policy discriminates against students on the basis of something unrelated to the roles from which it would bar them. In the interests of inclusiveness, it has the effect of dividing the student body into USGSO members on the one hand, and students eligible for leadership and scholarship opportunities on the other. Forcing students to make this choice would harm rather than enhance community. And if the USGSO policy is morally sound, then Harvard’s strict policy prohibiting inquiries about club memberships of job candidates must be too lenient. Faculty might consider how they would react if Harvard imposed something similar to the USGSO policy on their private activities and those of their colleagues—making them ineligible to chair their departments or to receive Harvard nominations for prizes if they belonged to certain organizations unrelated to their professional activities.

Q: But the USGSO policy is narrowly targeted. What harm could it do except to a few clubs?
A: Even if every one of the USGSOs were valueless to their members—which has not been established—the choices of students to join them, however unwisely, should be protected. We should not erode the civil liberties of our students even when we think that we know better than they do what is good for them.

Q: Something needs to be done about the problem of campus sexual assault. A lot of assaults take place at Final Clubs—doesn’t that justify going after them with the USGSO policy?
A: We support aggressive efforts to reduce campus sexual assault, but the connection between the cited data on sexual assault and the USGSO policy is weak. Pressuring the final clubs to admit women and pressuring men not to join them are not well-grounded policy responses to the sexual assault data, no matter how desirable these steps may be for other reasons. Including the fraternities, sororities, and women’s final clubs in the USGSO policy on general principles is an even less justified incursion into individual rights.

Q: Are you saying that Harvard should have a system of fraternities and sororities?
A: No, we aren’t. There has been no faculty discussion of fraternities and sororities, their sociology, prevalence, or influence as far as we are aware, nor of what felt need they satisfy. We do not advocate any change in Harvard’s posture on sororities and fraternities.

Q: But what about the entrenched privilege, the access to powerful alumni, through the final clubs, to which women have no access?
A: We offer no opinion about whether final clubs should admit women, but the principle that single-gender alumni networks should be opened up does not seem to be consistently applied. Even if all the final clubs became coeducational, other important single-gender alumni networks—of athletes and choral singers, for example—would be unaffected by the USGSO policy. It would be more in the spirit of an educational institution to strengthen alumni networks that are too weak than to weaken others on the basis that they are too strong.

Q: Harvard has such broad nondiscrimination policies already. Do we really need more?
A: It’s a long list indeed, including “race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, creed, national origin, age, ancestry, veteran status, disability, military service, or any other legally protected basis.” Membership in organizations is not protected, but should be, in our opinion.

Q: Does Title IX require us to do this?
A: The FAS Title IX Policies and Procedures memo states that off-campus activities are within Harvard’s purview if they may create a hostile environment for Harvard students. The memo does not call for specific across-the-board action against all USGSOs. Behavioral problems presented by certain clubs do indeed call for a serious and emphatic response—but the response should emerge from due fact-finding, study, and deliberation, and should be restricted to those clubs that create a hostile environment.

Q: But the President decided on this policy. Doesn’t that take it out of the hands of the FAS?
A: According to the Fifth Statute of the University, Harvard College is in the “immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.” Policies about who may receive fellowship nominations and who may be captain of a team or president of a student group are therefore matters under the purview of the FAS, whose elected representatives on the Faculty Council were not consulted before this policy was imposed.

Harry Lewis
Eric Nelson
Margo Seltzer
Richard Thomas

The Motion is: Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties, or groups have not been judged to be illegal. 

Shaye Cohen, Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy
Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology
Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science
Richard Losick, Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology
Jason Mitchell, Professor of Psychology
Eric Nelson, Robert M. Beren Professor of Government
Hanspeter Pfister, An Wang Professor of Computer Science
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Margo Seltzer, Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science
Richard Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics
Helen Vendler, A Kingsley Porter University Professor
James Waldo, Gordon McKay Professor of Practice of Computer Science

Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Unacceptable Question

Reproduced below are the introductory paragraph and one of the bullet items from Harvard's "Guide to Unacceptable Interview Questions." (See this FAS web page for top level link.)

Why would information that may not be asked of a faculty candidate disqualify a student from team captaincies, Rhodes nominations, and leadership of student organizations?

That's not a rhetorical question. Why is asking about a candidate's club memberships prohibited? Perhaps it is Harvard policy not to discriminate against candidates on the basis of organizations they join--in which case our motion does nothing more than afford students the same protection. Or Harvard is bound by some Massachusetts or federal law which codifies the same principle. If anyone knows the rationale for the prohibition, please do share. In any case, this does seem to bear on the hypothetical I posed to the Faculty Council, about how the faculty might feel if the policy applied to them.
It is essential for all members of a search committee to be aware of these guidelines and follow them in both spirit and letter. Avoid any direct or indirect questions that touch on material that may not be asked. This information about an applicant should never be discussed with regard to his or her candidacy for a position. 
Inquiry into an applicant’s membership in non-professional organizations (e.g., clubs, lodges, etc.)  

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lifecycle of a Moral Panic

The matter of single-gender social organizations has followed a familiar American pattern. At the beginning, a genuine problem is identified; the responses to it are insufficiently effective; a moral panic erupts, inflamed by larger societal forces; the authorities make a muscular response, which infringes personal freedom; those concerned about the loss of freedom protest cautiously if at all, out of fear of seeming to give comfort to the enemy; and the matter ends with a course correction, perhaps under judicial order in cases where civil rights are at stake, and perhaps only years after the precipitating events.

The immigration and terrorism panics from the current presidential campaign—walls to solve the problem of Mexican rapists, immigration bans to solve the problem of terrorist bombings—fit the old pattern. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Tipper Gore’s campaign to label dirty song lyrics show that the same pattern can stretch over issues grave and trivial.  The Internet has spawned a whole series of moral panics—we tell the story of the rise and fall of the Display Provision of the Communications Decency Act in chapter 7 of Blown to Bits.

Typically, the infringement of personal freedom is at first not acknowledged by the authorities, and is dismissed when raised by others. “It’s only a small dent in anybody’s rights, if it has anything to do with rights at all,” goes the argument. “These circumstances are absolutely unique and so this action could never set a precedent for anything else. And the small price is worth paying, given the magnitude of the problem and the importance of addressing it.” This logic leads to exaggeration in both directions, minimizing the threat to personal freedom and overstating the effectiveness of the reaction. The muscular response generally looks overblown once the moral panic subsides—until it is cited as a precedent during a later moral panic. Even the appalling Japanese-American internment has recently been cited favorably.

From a distance—and sometimes from close up, in the eyes of calmer souls—the response to a panic may look very different. As President Pusey said at the time McCarthy was going after Harvard professors for being communists, “Someday I am sure that we shall all look back on the hateful irrationality of the present with incredulity.”

The lifecycle pattern is understandable in political environments; people are often ready to sacrifice freedoms in times of fear, when rational discourse is most difficult. But academic institutions are devoted to the rule of reason and to teaching students how to solve problems rationally, with an eye to historical moments when panic trumped reason. For the pattern to play out at a great university sets a poor model for those we are educating.

The single-gender policy started with a genuine problem: Some of the final clubs are sketchy places, and bad things that happen at Harvard too often have final clubs in the narrative. My memory of Ad Board cases from twenty years ago is that the names of the same two or three clubs kept appearing in case reports—we started drinking at the X club and then went to his room, he got drunk at X club and punched me, somebody threw rocks from the roof of X club, and so on. I have no trouble believing that the reports continue and may be more frequent, reliable, and serious, as reporting of sexual assaults has increased. This is what I meant in my original letter to Dean Khurana when I referred to some of the clubs as “toxic.”

Various attempts to combat the problem have failed, or were effective only briefly. One tactic I tried that was surprisingly ineffective was to scare the grad board members, who might well be personally liable for damages if crimes or injuries occurred at their clubs. My successor went the other way—he tried to make nice with the final clubs. They reciprocated by inviting him to breakfast and serving a dish that was a word-play on his name. That approach did not work very well either.

Then a moral panic set in as college sexual assault, quite properly, gained national visibility. Whatever one thinks of the relevance of Title IX or of the preponderance-of-evidence standard, there is little doubt that the University has gotten much more aggressive about sexual assault prevention since the feds took an interest in Harvard’s response to complaints—and since litigation has been threatened against the university.

And so Harvard has offered a muscular response, of which the new policy is a part. Oddly, in the interest of inclusivity, the policy would divide the student body into two classes. The virtuous, who are not members of single-gender social organizations, would be eligible to be team captains, Rhodes nominees, and so on. The deplorables, who do join such organizations, would not be eligible for such honors. The response brings cheers because finally someone is being tough. The fact that the response may do little to solve the original problem, and would infringe rights of free association that Harvard has long honored, gets lost in the self-congratulations.

The Sexual Assault Task Force report is a good document, and, in my opinion, correctly (if rather too sweepingly) identifies the final clubs as problematic. Neither the report nor the statistical evidence it cites supports forcing them to go co-ed, or discouraging men from joining, as effective responses to the problem of sexual assault. Indeed, if a club has a reputation for being an unsafe place for women, one might question Harvard’s wisdom in encouraging women to join.

What to do, if the new policy isn’t the right approach? Harvard could start by aggressively educating students about any unsafe places it has identified—clubs, parks, or dark alleys near Harvard Yard. Training on how to party safely, not just at the final clubs but anywhere, would be another targeted response—drink in moderation if at all, and never from a punch bowl; take a buddy with you and never leave without her, etc. Improved social spaces are often cited as a necessary response, and who could argue against that on this crowded campus? But Harvard social spaces, which will inevitably be regulated, will never compete against spaces off campus where the drinking age is ignored. Calling in the police when the final club parties disturb the peace might level the playing field of social attractiveness between Harvard and non-Harvard spaces.

In responding to this moral panic, the very definition of the problem morphed into one of broad social “exclusivity” and even “privilege.” Those may be problems, but they are not problems for which any evidence has been presented, so it is hard to judge the response. How odd to hear the Harvard leadership brandishing a stereotype in the interest of promoting diversity and inclusivity! Nor would any problem of privileged exclusivity of the final clubs be fixed by forcing them to go co-ed. If in fact Harvard knows that the membership of the clubs is largely drawn from some hereditary elite, then having the daughters of those families join their sons in the clubs is a laughable blow against privilege. To suggest that simply being single-gender makes the clubs dens of “exclusivity” and “privilege” is to play a word game. By that standard, the Anglican monastery on Memorial Drive is “exclusive.”

And I have never heard anyone refer to the fraternities and sororities as socially exclusive. In fact, my guess is that the members of those organizations, which never used to exist at Harvard, are disproportionally the students who might have attended their state universities had they not come to Harvard. I would speculate that the rise of fraternities and sororities is a side effect of the democratization of Harvard College—its evolution from a largely bicoastal, high-income, urban institution into one much more representative of America.

Students tend to bring to Harvard the clubs and hobbies that they had in high school or that their high school friends are enjoying at universities near home. I have joked, but it may well be true, that fraternities and sororities grew in popularity among Harvard students around the same time that we began seeing a baton twirler at halftime of Harvard football games. These were not part of old Harvard because old Harvard was not representative of America. The reason these allegedly exclusive organizations exist is because Harvard is more inclusive than it has ever been. I don’t love the baton twirling or the sororities either, but that doesn’t matter. Harvard is large, and contains multitudes.

So when President Faust said in her video about the final clubs, “The whole situation could be resolved in a minute if these clubs admitted women,” I wonder which “situation” she was referring to. Not the problem of sexual assault. Not the problem, whatever it is, of off-campus sororities and fraternities. Not the problem of “privilege” or “exclusivity.” Only the problem, perhaps, of widespread unhappiness with the policy itself.


President Faust had an op-ed in the Crimson on September 21, Claiming Full Citizenship. It’s a good account of the history, and I’m glad she points the finger at Radcliffe College as an institution which in its latter days did more to hold back than to advance the equality of women undergraduates. However, the article transitions in an abrupt and puzzling way to justifying the new policy on single-gender social organizations. Just when did the Kappa Kappa Gamma, or the Porcellian Club for that matter, become one of the “opportunities central to Harvard undergraduate life,” and thereby fall under Harvard control?

Much less under presidential control. The op-ed has three “I want”s in the last two paragraphs. These seem to be intended to justify the “We created a policy” that is used in the Atlantic video. This is constitutionally simply wrong—the Statutes are clear that the College is in the “immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” not of the President. That is why the Faculty annually votes all the rules and regulations for the College, and specifically approves any changes.

But quite aside from the statutory questions are the deeper questions about the role of the institution in the private lives of its students. There may be many things that the president, or indeed the Faculty, “wants” of Harvard students. We have historically exercised humility in deciding which of those institutional “wants” were appropriate to demand. How did it come to pass that what the president wants can become the law of the land for students who wish to be first-class Harvard citizens?

In particular, I wonder: If, as the president states, the correct response to Harvard students joining single-gender social organizations is to make them second-class Harvard citizens, was the Verba committee wrong? At the time when President Faust, with great dignity, upheld the FAS policy against discriminatory organizations and barred ROTC from Harvard, should Harvard have imposed on ROTC students some loss of privilege in the interest of greater inclusivity? Does the president think that what the Verba committee considered too patronizing on Harvard’s part is today no longer patronizing at all? Or is it now OK for Harvard to be patronize—some might say infantilize—its students, by limiting their freedom to choose which off-campus activities they may honorably join?