In the spring of 2014, Harvard University President Drew Faust created a task force to improve the way the school prevents sexual assault.
The task force’s final report, released in March and the result of a nearly two years of work, excoriated the culture of final clubs — illustrious social organisations, some of which are nearly as old as the university itself.
To join these predominantly male-only clubs, sophomores go through a “punch process,” an experience that’s like rushing a frat in a more civilized, exclusive manner.
There has been renewed focus on final clubs in the past few days as, Porcellian Club, the oldest final club at Harvard, spoke out this week against the report by way of letter sent to the Harvard Crimson by Porcellian board president Charles M. Storey ’82.
The task force’s report hit out at male-only final clubs and gave a rarely seen glimpse into the culture of the historically private institutions.
“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 reads.
The task force wrote that nearly one in two, or 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 describes 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 charges that there are competitive games “where a man will ‘win’ a particular woman or compete for the most sexual triumphs.”
Final clubs are steeped in history. The oldest, Porcellian, was founded in 1791. The majority of the rest of the male-only clubs were founded in the 19th century.
Until relatively recently, they have also been bastions of white male privilege.
An article in the Harvard Crimson in 1965 described the barrier of entrance to “certain groups of individuals.”
“Virtually all the clubs now talk about ‘liberalizing’ their membership policies,” Herbert H. Denton Jr. wrote in the Crimson. “The tacit ban on Jews has been relaxed in most clubs, though the ban on Negroes is still in effect.”
Spee club seems to be the first final club to admit a black student, according to a 1968 story published in The Crimson. “The Spee Club has elected a Negro, Frank M. Snowden ’68, of Eliot House and Washington, D.C. He is believed to be the first Negro to accept membership in a final club at Harvard,” The Crimson then reported.
It seems to have been the most progressive of the clubs, admitting Catholics at the turn of the 20th century and Jewish students in the 1930s, according to The New York Times.
Women needed to wait until much later for membership to final clubs, though. The first female-only final club was established in 1991, and there are now five female-only clubs, the most recent of which was established in 2008.
There are six male-only final clubs and two previously male-only clubs — Spee Club and Fox Club — which have conceded to university pressure and have allowed female membership.
Porcellian President Storey spoke out on Wednesday against the report, claiming it unfairly scapegoats final clubs. His letter charged that Porcellian “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.”
He has since apologised for the tone of his letter after it drew outrage from members of the Harvard administration and from US Representative Katherine Clark, according to The Boston Globe.
“Unfortunately, I chose my words poorly and it came out all wrong,” Storey wrote in a statement. “This failure has led to extreme and unfortunate misinterpretations, which were not my intentions at all. I take the issue of sexual assault extremely seriously, and I am truly sorry to those I have offended.”