A year and a half after Harvard first introduced sanctions on single-sex organizations, the fight for freedom of association on campus carries on, and it may come down to some influential alumni to save the campus.
On December 3, 2018, sororities, fraternities, and three Harvard College students filed suits in federal and state courts, alleging that Harvard is infringing on their freedom of association and discriminating against students on the basis of sex.
These groups, according to their attorney, “intend to litigate until the policy is withdrawn and Harvard undergraduates are free to join independent single-sex organizations without penalty.”
Harvard pushed back on this statement by arguing that their intentions were to keep the campus from becoming a “Greek school.”
Over the past year, numerous all-male or all-female Harvard organizations have been forced to become co-ed. If they did not abide, members would risk losing leadership opportunities, athletic captaincies, and Harvard endorsements for scholarships such as the Rhodes.
The sanctions stemmed from a recommendation by a Harvard sexual-assault task force that suggested ending male-only clubs in order to fight back against sexual violence. At the time, the task force did not single out female-only organizations, something noted by many as a violation of Title IX.
Numerous non-Harvard organizations, sororities, and fraternities have come out in support of the most recent lawsuit, including Alpha Omicron Pi, Delta Upsilon, and Alpha Xi Delta, who sent emails of support to all members.
Harvard’s sorority recruitment saw a substantial drop in 2018 after the sanctions were introduced, and many felt that the sanctions, often viewed as a reaction to negative stories generated around fraternities, were unduly punishing sororities.
“Harvard attempted to tell the female students what would be good for them without bothering to ask them,” Rebecca Ramos, the former president of Delta Gamma at Harvard, told The Crimson.
According to a report by The College Fix, winter 2017-2018 sorority recruitment saw a 60 percent drop in interest due to the sanctions looming over the sororities that refused to become co-ed at the time, including Alpha Phi, Delta Gamma, and Kappa Alpha Theta.
“We believe in a woman’s right to create a supportive, aspirational community,” the sororities said in a joint statement. “We believe women should make their own choices.”
A recruitment packet geared towards women interested in joining a single-sex sorority said, “While Harvard’s sanctions claim to support a woman’s right to make her own decision, these sanctions actually force women to choose between the opportunity to have supportive, empowering women-only spaces and external leadership opportunities.”
A March 2018 report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education concluded that “Harvard’s policy will not only ultimately fail, but come to be seen as one of the more shameful interludes in the institution’s history.”
Harvard boasts an impressive alumni pool, including numerous presidents, Supreme Court justices, politicians, and CEOs—they might just be able to put enough pressure on Harvard to reverse these sanctions, encourage free association on campus, and fight back against a culture of violence that doesn’t restrict freedoms that may not be the cause of the problem.
If prominent Harvard alumni that participated in single-sex organizations, such as Bill Gates, Deval Patrick, Jared Kushner, BJ Novak, the Winkelvoss twins, and more, stand up, speak out, and put their money where their mouth is, Harvard may have to listen.
Freedom of association might not be as sexy as freedom of speech, but the two freedoms go hand-in-hand, and if Harvard attacks freedom of association, it won’t be long before they go after speech too.
Aryssa is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, an alumna of the National Journalism Center, and a contributor to the New Guard.