Harvard faculty fights back against University’s penalizing freedom of association

On May 13 I reported that, after a report by Dean Rakesh Khurana, Harvard’s President Drew Faust instituted a new University policy: students who belonged to non-University single-sex organizations, like fraternities, sororities, and “final clubs,” would be subject to sanctions by Harvard. Those sanctions included Harvard’s denial of any leadership positions in student organizations to members of such groups (these positions include being captain of single-sex sports teams), as well as the University’s refusal to write letters of recommendation to applicants for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall. (That would effectively sink those students’ chances.)

That policy, made without consulting faculty or students, had an admirable goal: to reduce sexism and sexual harassment and assault. But the means were invidious: penalizing students’ freedom of association off campus. As a Harvard alum, I wrote a letter to President Faust (copy here) objecting to the policy, and got back this noncomittal reply:

Dear Mr. Coyne,

Thank you very much for taking the time to write.  I appreciate having your perspective on this important set of issues, and I have taken the liberty of sharing your concerns with Dean Khurana.


Drew Faust

Now, according to the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper), a group of 16 faculty have prepared a resolution against Faust’s new policy and plan to introduce it to the faculty senate.  The pdf is here, and here’s the letter. You’ll recognize at least one of the signatories:

Resolved: 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.

Argument. This resolution codifies longstanding University practice. Harvard has established nondiscrimination policies for its educational and administrative purposes, but throughout the history of the College a student has been able to be at once a full member of the Harvard community and also a member of other communities with different policies. The Faculty sets standards for student behavior when it votes the Handbook for Students, but students may exercise their civil right to free assembly without fear that Harvard will disadvantage them because they have joined an organization that does not comply with Harvard policies.

This understanding was articulated in the 1992 report on ROTC (“the Verba report”). “Harvard is not and should not be responsible for the policies and practices of the wide variety of external organizations in which its students may choose to participate …. Some of our students belong to organizations, such as religious or single-sex social clubs, that have membership requirements which would be impermissible under the University’s non-discrimination policy…. [I]ntrusion by the University into the private choices of students, acting as individuals, to … participate in such external activities would, we believe, be unacceptably paternalistic.”

The Verba committee considered and explicitly rejected the option of sanctioning individual students who chose to join ROTC in spite of its discriminatory policies. “Even if the University itself abandoned all direct support of ROTC, it could proceed further and seek to prohibit Harvard students from enrolling in an ROTC unit or accepting an ROTC scholarship because of the discriminatory policy of the military. This would be a paternalistic policy inconsistent with Harvard’s general approach. It would single out ROTC for disadvantageous treatment compared to other outside organizations or funding sources, and would seek to extend the reach of Harvard’s non-discrimination policy beyond its proper boundaries.”

These “proper boundaries” were not specified in the 1992 legislation, probably because they went without saying. Recent administrative proposals suggest that there is uncertainty about the limits of Harvard’s control over students’ lives. We therefore believe that this legislation, based on University precedent, history, and practice, is needed to protect the rights of current and future students—and, indeed, by extension, the rights of current and future faculty and staff.

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
Notice that most of the signatories are in the sciences; this is common when faculty object to restrictions on freedom of speech, For reasons I don’t understand, faculty in the humanities are loath to stand up for such issues. The Crimson reports further:

Biology professor Richard M. Losick, one of the motion’s signatories, said that although he had discussed the sanctions informally with colleagues since the announcement, he was not aware that administrators consulted faculty on the policy. Losick added that he was “no fan” of final clubs, but worried that administrators’s actions represented a threat to the “fundamental right of freedom of association.”

“The action from the Dean and approved by the President was taken without consultation with the Faculty,” Losick said, adding that he found it “disappointing that there was not an opportunity for it to be discussed among the faculty before such new procedures were put into place.”

Can the Dean and President actually implement such a policy without the faculty’s and students’ assent? Can the faculty overturn this policy by a vote? Neither answer is clear. But President Faust has made a misstep with this one, and I predict that the policy won’t actually go into effect (it’s scheduled to begin next year).

Finally, Harry Lewis, the professor of computer science who signed the letter above, and a former Dean of the College, wrote a separate letter of objection to Dean Khurana and President Faust; you can see that here.



  1. GBJames
    Posted June 4, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink


  2. Morton Kaplan
    Posted June 4, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Notice also that the only non scientists are profs in ancient lit and phil.

    • Alex C
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Well, there is one professor of Government, Prof. Eric Nelson.

  3. Posted June 4, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Hurrah for the brave science faculty at Harvard!

    • Scott Draper
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Brave? What risks are they taking, exactly?

      • dd
        Posted June 4, 2016 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, how about this:

  4. Martin Levin
    Posted June 4, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Actually, Helen Vendler is an extremely distinguished literary critic, particularly of poetry. She is, however, in her eighties, and so, presumably, old-school.

    • Posted June 4, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Even Vendler has a science background. Her undergraduate degree is in chemistry and she was awarded a Fulbright in mathematics. And her analyses of poetry have always been much more careful, learned, and evidence-based than most of what passes for literary criticism in academia these days. She is Old School indeed.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for supporting Vendler, who is a wonderful literary scholar and critic, mostly – pace Mr Kaplan above – of modern literature.

  5. Posted June 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what will happen when Harvard puts sanctions on a female student who joins a
    club of breast-feeding mothers.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      They wouldn’t have to as long as the club was open to breast feeding fathers as well.

      • Guy
        Posted June 4, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Or at least a male who identified as a breast feeder.

  6. df
    Posted June 4, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Question: What if students who belong to religions that segregate by men and women attend services at Harvard? Or any other school….

%d bloggers like this: