Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Where the rubber meets the road

The Implementation Committee report is out, and Dean Khurana has accepted its recommendations. The issuance of the report was followed quickly by the appointment of the committee to consider alternatives, chaired, oddly, by Dean Khurana himself along with another faculty member. (One wonders if he might have delayed accepting the Committee’s recommendations until he had listened to other ideas from his new committee. Oh well.)

The report includes an elaborate set of definitions and categories of social organizations. As far as I can tell, the Index of Prohibited Organizations hasn’t changed. A sorority such as Lambda Upsilon of Alpha Kappa Alpha still isn’t on the Index, even though it is homogeneous in both ethnicity and gender, because it includes Wellesley and MIT students as well as Harvard students. So it’s nondiscriminatory!

The Report makes a number of rhetorical and historical leaps. It suggests that the newer organizations sprang up to serve students who couldn’t get into Final Clubs. That’s doubtless true for some clubs, but not for most of them. Most of the students in most of the single gender organizations are exactly the opposite—they have no use for the Final Clubs, and wouldn’t even have been at Harvard fifty years ago. Take Ali Partovi, for example, who spoke to the Globe.
“There’s a lot of people who share a distaste of the final clubs not just because of sexism but also because of the elitism, yet this policy punishes the guilty and the innocent indiscriminately,” said Ali Partovi, a 1994 graduate who was a member of the local chapter of Sigma Chi. He emphasized he was speaking personally and not for the fraternity. Partovi, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, said that as a nerdy, immigrant student on financial aid, he found Harvard lonely and exclusionary. In Sigma Chi, he said, he found a “ragtag group of misfits” and comforting camaraderie more welcoming than the final clubs.
The Report’s mischaracterization of the origins of the fraternities and sororities does not create confidence that the College has attempted to understand the sociology of these organizations.

The Report expresses some annoyance that the USGSO policy had been tied to the problem of sexual assault—which just might be because the two were mentioned in the same breath both by Dean Khurana when he announced the policy last May and by President Faust when she accepted it. The report also expresses annoyance at the use of the term “sanctions,” as though disqualification from eligibility for a variety of distinctions were not punitive.

It is almost too easy to ridicule the report’s patronizing rhetoric. I had particular fun imagining the scenario of Appendix H, where we are asked to envision readings of Chaucer in the dining halls as a welcoming, gender-inclusive form of social life, unlike, I suppose, the bad, discriminatory stuff that happens in meetings of the Kappa Kappa Gamma. I’d suggest the Implementation Committee be the first dining-hall performers, and that they work their way through The Miller’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and The Reeve’s Tale and see what happens. They would probably have a Middlebury College moment.

But here I want to focus on the serious issue the report raises, which I have been wondering all along. What’s the enforcement mechanism? This is important because it’s the point Jim Engell was hitting in his remarks at the FAS meeting. The Statutes assign to the Faculty the job of disciplining students; the Faculty votes and publishes the rules it makes and the sanctions it imposes; and yet the proposal is for the College to punish membership in those clubs on the Index without faculty authorization to do this.

The Implementation Committee Report explains how this circle is to be squared. Students assuming these various roles will have to take an oath that they are not members of organizations on the Index.
I affirm my awareness of the College’s policy regarding the principle of non-discrimination, particularly with regard to membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations. In taking a leadership position in a student organization/applying for a sponsored grant or fellowship/becoming a varsity athletic team captain, I affirm my compliance with that policy.
The Report continues,
This document should be regarded as an agreement between the individual student and the College, as represented by the relevant office. We consider compliance with the policy to be a matter between the individual student and the College. Other parties—faculty, faculty deans and tutors, athletic coaches, fellow organization members, teammates—should not be responsible for policing the policy or ensuring that it is complied with. It is up to the student to meet the College’s expectations in this area.
In the case of fellowships and awards: the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships will require a signed document as part of all applications for the awards specified in the policy.

We recommend that violations of the policy—to wit, falsely affirming compliance—be considered a violation of the Honor Code and fall under the jurisdiction of the Honor Council. In recommending that the Honor Council be the administrative body to deal with violations of the policy, we are aware that the Council’s mandate concerns issues of academic integrity. We recommend either that the mandate be expanded to include violations of this policy or that the policy be defined in such a way that violations fall within the category of academic integrity. Our thinking is that a false affirmation is a violation of the expectation of honesty, and should be adjudicated as any other such violation would be.

So students would be punished not for being a member of a club on the Index, but for dishonesty in their oath-making. And the Honor Council would do the punishing.

Now there are a few problems with this.

First, I find the recourse to oaths to be quite repellent. I thought that when the Kindness Pledge was proposed (an idea Ben Carson has brought back, by the way). At the FAS meeting of May 6, 2014, I spoke against the affirmation associated with the honor code, anticipating that once we started making students swear to things, we might not be able to stop:
Let me go straight to the core of my worries. We have a long and, if I may, honorable tradition in this institution of not asking members of the community to make oaths, pledges, or quasi-sacred affirmations. Now I recognize that this makes us different from other places. In fact, Samuel Eliot Morison, in one of his Harvard histories, observed that it was a distinctive characteristic of the place, that the founders did not expect students to take any oaths. Morison concluded that by avoiding oaths, the founders were putting the emphasis instead on personal autonomy and responsibility. As he put it, “Our founders knew from their English experience that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. … Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them.”

Do we know better now? Equipped with psychological research, perhaps we have discovered that oaths really do have the “power to bind conscience.” So it would seem, since two proposals for solemn pledges have surfaced in the past year, first for a kindness pledge and now for an integrity affirmation. Who knows what may be next.
It all seems so retrograde. We are moving from treating our students as adults, as autonomous souls endowed with free will, to treating our students as children. We should not do so, however willing students may be to take these oaths.

In today’s world, pledges and oaths are for scout troops and fraternities and military schools, places where the high values are obedience and regimentation. … No one would propose that members of this faculty make such an affirmation. Many of us would refuse to take it. We value academic integrity even more for ourselves than we do for our students. But for all the talk about shared student and faculty buy-in, voting this would be to go on the record as believing that a ritual affirmation of integrity is good for students, even though we would not be willing to take it ourselves.

Would refusing to make the affirmation be a separate crime, also to be punished by the Honor Council? As I have said elsewhere, Harvard is full of ornery students. It’s hard for me to imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson agreeing to make such an affirmation. Would we really deny such a student a Rhodes nomination for stubbornly refusing to say whether or not he was a member of a single gender club?

But let’s stipulate that the FAS now has no problem with compulsory affirmations, and has its ways of making students sign them.

The requirement for the affirmation needs to go into the Handbook for Students, which is voted by the Faculty—just as the Honor Code affirmation is in the Handbook. But even that is not enough. Adjudication and punishment of a false affirmation of the nondiscrimination affirmation CANNOT be assigned to the Honor Council without amending the legislation that created that Council. As the Report notes, the vote of May 6, 2014, that created the Honor Code and the Honor Council specifically limited its purview to academic matters:
1. Beginning in the fall of 2015, Harvard College adopt an honor code for undergraduates to strengthen the dedication to academic integrity in the College, as follows:
a. Members of the Harvard College community commit themselves to producing academic work of integrity – that is, work that adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to their ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problem sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.
b. Commitment to the honor code will be demonstrated through an “Affirmation of Integrity.” The Dean of Harvard College will bring to Faculty Councila recommendation regarding the nature and frequency of this affirmation, and subsequently the full Faculty will consider it for inclusion in the Harvard College Handbook for Student
2. Harvard College create an Honor Board to adjudicate cases of violations of the undergraduate honor code. …
So the College cannot, without a Faculty vote, punish students for lying about their club memberships on the basis of an affirmation it requires students to make in order to be eligible for fellowships and other roles. If I were a student who was punished on the basis of an illegitimate assumption of authority by the Honor Council, I would hire a lawyer.

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