Harvard’s exclusive male-only final clubs are drawing intense criticism

At Harvard University, the issue of exclusive, mostly male-only, final clubs has roiled emotions on campus over the past year.

A task force sanctioned by Harvard President Drew Faust excoriated exclusive final clubs for their “deeply misogynistic attitudes,” leading to backlash on campus from individuals who feel Harvard’s administration is overstepping its bounds and unfairly scapegoating the clubs.

New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir recently took a trip to Harvard’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus to provide a glimpse inside the secretive world of final clubs.

Nir described this scene from outside of Fly Club, a male-only final club on campus:

“One midnight near semester’s end on the skirts of Harvard Yard, music thumped and laughs rang out from a colonnaded, Greek-revival mansion, the sort usually seen in Hollywood fantasies about fraternal campus life. But it was the scene outside that suggested something other than a frat party. This was the headquarters of the Fly, an exclusive men’s fellowship known here as a final club. At its side door stood a silver-haired man in tuxedo, checking names against a list of the lucky invited. Eager young women in micro-minis queued up.”

Harvard currently has six male-only final clubs, and five female-only clubs. Two previously male-only clubs — Spee Club and Fox Club — now allow female membership.

‘It’s all about the patriarchy’

Criticism with final clubs is usually aimed at the male-only clubs and center around the patriarchal power structures that some claim are inherent in their culture.

Owl club house
Male-only Owl Club. By owl club – Public Domain

“It’s all about the patriarchy,” rising Harvard sophomore
Ana Andrade told the Times. “It’s perpetuated right there,” she continued, noting that she felt uncomfortable with the notion that final-club members determined a the “worth” of entrants based on physical attributes, among other things.

That’s an argument that Harvard’s task force also highlighted in their report on the culture of the historically private institutions.

President Faust created the task force in the spring of 2014 to improve the way the school prevents sexual assault.

“A woman’s physical appearance is often seen as the basis for entry to these spaces, and female students described a general expectation that entering Final Club spaces could be read as implicit agreement to have sexual encounters with members,” the report stated.

The task force’s final report, released in March and the result of a nearly two years of work, severely criticised the culture of final clubs. The task force wrote that 47% of female students who participated in final clubs or attended their parties reported “experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.”

The report also focused on what it described as a disproportionate power structure at clubs.

“We understand that many of the Clubs typically exclude non-member men from parties, which gives an unambiguous frame to social events, eliminates non-member male bystanders, and enables a gender ratio that makes it easier for members to have a sexual encounter.”

Further, it charged that there are competitive games “where a man will ‘win’ a particular woman or compete for the most sexual triumphs.”

‘A moral pall’

Those close to final clubs feel that Harvard is using the organisations as a convenient, though inaccurate, place to throw blame for instances of sexual assault on campus.

“If Harvard really were to become serious about preventing sexual assault rather than using it as a way to push an ideological stance they’d drill down to find out exactly what is occurring rather than trying to throw a moral pall over any man or women who belongs to these clubs,” Richard T. Porteus, president of the Fly Club’s graduate body, told The Times.

Similarly, after the task force’s report was released, former Porcellian President Charles M. Storey claimed the report unfairly scapegoated final clubs. A letter he sent to The Harvard Crimson charged that the Porcellian club “is being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault,” according to the Crimson.

He also took issue with the university’s attempt to dictate the way organisations on campus are run. “I sincerely hope that the administration will not set the precedent of creating a ‘blacklist’ of organisations that students cannot join,” he wrote. “Such McCarthyism is a dangerous road that would be a blow to academic freedom, the spirit of tolerance, and the long tradition of free association on campus.”

The letter drew outrage from members of the Harvard administration, and Storey later apologised for the tone of his letter and resigned from his position.

His argument, however, has been echoed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organisation dedicated to protecting civil liberties in higher education

“It is solely up to arbitrary judgment of the authorities as to who is no longer savoury enough,” Robert Shibley, executive director of FIRE, told The Times. “In the ’50s that would have been the Communist Party … Once you start using that as a reason to disqualify, there is no principled place to stop.”

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