Steve Pinker responds to Harvard’s plan to restrict student membership in non-Harvard groups

This morning Greg Mayer posted a description and critique of Harvard University’s new plan to prohibit students from joining non-University groups that, the school thinks, reflect poorly on Harvard and its “mission.” Go read the article first, and then read this. Here’s a precis of what Harvard forbids:

Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the College. The College will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the Administrative Board.

One problem is that this plan is apparently being pushed through by Harvard’s deans and its President without any assent of the faculty as a whole. Although the plan was concocted by a committee that included faculty, there won’t be a faculty vote, and the one committee member I know, level-headed evolutionary biologist David Haig, dissented publicly from the plan.

Now another friend, Steven Pinker, who of course is also Harvard faculty, has publicly criticized the plan—and eloquently. His statement is on the website of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and here it is:

This is a terrible recommendation, which is at odds with the ideals of a university.

  1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.
  1. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.
  1. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.
  1. This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.

All very powerful, and I especially favor #4: Harvard, widely seen as American’s best university, shouldn’t become an Ivy League version of Evergreen State College. As time goes by, I’ve watched my alma mater becoming more and more of a Cntrl-Left institution (e.g., see here), and it sucks.


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Pinker might also have added that it is a rule which is probably unenforceable, either practically or legally, and is, therefore, bad policy.

  2. Posted July 14, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a guaranteed recipe for secret societies.

  3. Linda Calhoun
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    This is unconstitutional. The first amendment guarantees the right to peacefully assemble.

    A university cannot abridge that, can it?


    • BobTerrace
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Public universities probably cannot legally enforce it but private organizations probably can.

      • Filippo
        Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        On that same basis I reasonably gather that the Harvard powers-that-be could fire Pinker because they disagrees with him, tenure or not. But the public opprobrium and embarrassment would be monumental.

        If one of these clubs met up fifty or more miles away – even out of state in Rhode Island – does Harvard presume to believe that its ambit and writ extend that far?

        Ah, the privileges of being a private corporate tyrant.

    • BJ
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Harvard is a private school, so forbidding certain types of speech or peaceable assembly is within its rights. It certainly doesn’t uphold the value of free speech, nor that of the university mission, but it is technically able to do so.

      • enl
        Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

        As a private institution taking public moneys, they actually are bound by the same rules as a public institution. That said, some of the actions at Evergreen (a public institution, also taking federal public moneys and bound by federal rules) are not legal.

        I have registered protest several times, and got no response. I may not like some of the actions and sanctioned behaviours by clubs, but these are organizations made up of people of majority age, acting outside the property of the university. The university can not violate the due process rights of the students without jeopardizing the public funds they get, and, pubic funding non-withstanding, can not change conditions for students already enrolled.

        I am not a lawyer, but I have been on the winning side of a case (back when long-hair pinkos were the target) that is a very, very close match. Same institution, in fact….

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          A university’s acceptance of federal funds may come with a requirement that the university follow certain federal rules and guidelines — for example, Title IX requirements.

          But its mere receipt of federal money does not perforce convert a private university into a “state actor” for constitutional purposes, thereby subjecting it to the requirements of the First Amendment and Due Process clause.

          • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

            I imagine if enl’s interpretation were correct there would be very few universities that would “stay private”. I imagine Harvard gets a lot of NIH money the way CMU gets a lot of DoD.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      The First Amendment restricts governmental action. (“Congress shall make no law … .”) As BobTerrace observes, it applies accordingly to public, but not private, universities.

      It is a nice question whether a prohibition such as Harvard’s if adopted at a public university would violate the so-called “right of association” often claimed to be a non-textual component of the First Amendment.*

      ^Rather ironically, the non-textual “right of association” is often asserted by the same conservatives and originalists who are so critical of the Constitution’s similarly non-textual “right of privacy” that undergirds reproductive rights. The “right of association” has a checkered history, in that it was asserted in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed invidious discrimination at places of public accommodation.

    • Posted July 14, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      It will take a lawsuit to know for sure. A normal private institution can do this legally. The problem here is that the school takes in millions in federal money. This acceptance of federal money has allowed a lot of federal policy to apply to private schools. A recent example is the Dear Colleague letter used to enforce the preferred policy of the Civil rights division of the Dept of Education on the matter of sexual assualt on campus. Well, the entire fact that Title 9 applies to private colleges is another example.

      If I was to make a bet I would say that Harvard would lose in a courtroom. Espeically for current and incoming fall 2017 students.

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    That is the only argument you need.

  5. BobTerrace
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    It is time to take back the universities from the regressive left. Steven Pinker’s response is a good start. The faculties should meet and organize opposition to these autocratic pronouncements.

    • BJ
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that so much of the faculty is in favor of regressive leftism, even indoctrinating their students into it.

  6. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I was never a fan of frats at Uni, but this does seem like an over the top response to a limited problem.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    That statement by Pinker is … well, Pinkeresque (high praise indeed).

    • rickflick
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t help noticing how simple, clear, and direct his language is.

  8. Posted July 14, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Noticed this another time: It’s “Ctrl-Left” (loose the n) , named after the key on windows PCs, located on the opposite site of Alt-Right, another key. Though Command-Left, the Mac version, would work too, somewhat.

    The Pinkah is, of course, spot on. I find #4 the least convincing point, though. Impressions are certainly important, especially if universities want to attract talent that would be deterred by such idiocy (or “virtue signalling”). However, for one, virtue signallers probably want to give that impression. For another, I think that ship has sailed in 2015. Universities are already known for their so-called “social justice warrior” infestation.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      “loose” — lose the extra “o”. 🙂

    • Posted July 14, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      My Mac keyboard has a Control button and a Command button. It also has an Option button. Not sure what that may be used for. Maybe Ctrl-Option-Left to refer to those who apply sanctions on free speech while ignoring speech that calls for the destruction of the state of Isreal?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 14, 2017 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        My Mac keyboard has a Control button and a Command button. It also has an Option button

        Shift, Meta, Compose and Alt-Gr.
        There’s too much variation in these things within one script alone to not be worthwhile trying to make generalisations.

    • Posted July 14, 2017 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      The fourth point might be redundant or even less important than the others, but I still don’t see why it’s unconvincing (although, I know you said less convincing). Yes, universities already have an image problem – so technically it’s not possible to prevent this. But it is possible to either exacerbate or alleviate an image problem. It’s certainly possible for an institution to clean up its image by cleaning up its act.

    • nicky
      Posted July 14, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

      I take your point that a lot of PR damage has already been done, but universities need public money. The public’s perception is hence very important. So I would rate #4 as a very important and convincing reason.

      I can’t remember from where, but:
      “Both the Ctrl-left and the Alt-right could do with some Del-nonsense.”

  9. eric
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I like #2, and would add that an institution will quickly lose it’s credibility as a place where the students can express their individuality and explore new ways of doing things, when it actively punishes those students for expressing their individual choices in who to associate with and exploring new social groups.

    Also, to turn it around a bit…isn’t every upper level class an “exclusionary social organization that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students”? Exclusionary – check! You can’t get in without the prerequisite classes. Predominantly made up of Harvard students? Check!

  10. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values,

    There are going to be people – in faculty – who are to going to accept that value.

  11. gijswijs
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    The irony of Harvard, probably one of, if not the most elitist university in the world prohibiting its students to take part in other elitist gatherings of one’s own choosing…

    • nicky
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 12:01 am | Permalink

      Yep, ‘ironic’ it is. I think our host mentioned that in his earlier post, but it doen’t harm to point it out again.

  12. chris moffatt
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    One might have thought Prof. Pinker’s points would be obvious to the executives of a University corporation; however it seems that these days they are as clueless as executives of most other business corporations. They must all go to the same “business” schools.

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