UPDATE: Feb. 11, 2019: Harvard University on Friday moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed by some fraternities and sororities over its policy discouraging single-gender student organizations. Harvard said in court papers that the policy was gender-neutral, treating men and women equally, and so did not violate Title IX prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender. In a separate memorandum, Harvard said the claims against it "have no statutory or legal foundation of any kind."
UPDATE: Dec. 5, 2018: Harvard University spokesperson Rachael Dane did not address the lawsuit specifically but said in a statement emailed to Education Dive that the university's policy on "unrecognized" single-gender social organizations is "designed to dedicate resources to those organizations that are advancing principles of inclusivity, while offering them supportive pathways as they transform into organizations that align with the educational philosophy, mission, and values of the College." Dane added, "Harvard should not have to change its commitment to non-discrimination and educational philosophy for outside organizations that are not aligned with our long-standing mission."
- A Harvard University policy that aims to steer students away from single-gender social organizations is facing its first legal challenge in the form of lawsuits from a handful of fraternities and sororities, according to court filings and an Associated Press report. Harvard did not immediately respond to Education Dive's request for comment.
- The two suits, one in federal court and another in state court, contend the policy discriminates against students on the basis of their sex. The federal complaint, by two sororities and two fraternities, argues "the policy requires inquiry into the sex of the person to determine whether he or she warrants punishment." The suit asks the court to declare Harvard's policy unlawful.
- Introduced in May 2016, Harvard's policy targets all-male "final clubs" but also impacts fraternities, sororities and other single-gender groups. In considering the new policy, a university committee found Harvard's system of single-gender clubs "facilitates highly asymmetrical power dynamics" and amounted to an "untenable" status quo.
Harvard's policy has generated plenty of controversy since it landed. Much of the opposition has focused on the rule's punitive aspects, which prevent members of unrecognized single-gender social groups from holding leadership positions in other student organizations or on athletic teams, and also makes them ineligible for some fellowships.
Along with discouraging membership in single-gender clubs, the policy also sought to transition existing organizations to inclusive membership practices as a way of accounting for some of the historical inequities the clubs helped entrench. In a statement last December, Harvard's then-President Drew Gilpin Faust said: "The final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard's student body was all male, culturally homogeneous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different."
The federal lawsuit against Harvard highlights the specific impact to women's clubs on campus, arguing that "all-female social clubs have suffered the most." The complaint notes that "nearly all" women-only clubs closed or became coed in the wake of the policy. "Through a new student-conduct policy that punishes undergraduates who join single-sex social organizations, Harvard succeeded, perversely, in eliminating nearly every women's social organization previously available to female students at Harvard," attorneys for the plaintiffs said in the complaint.
For its part, the implementation committee at Harvard noted the historical importance of all-women clubs, as well as the resource disparities between them and all-male groups. It recommended a longer bridge program for those groups to help them adapt to the policy.
As for fraternities and sororities, Harvard's Dane noted that the university has not had a Greek system on the campus itself for more than 100 years. "As President Faust and the Harvard Corporation said in December of 2017, it is the expressed expectation of this community that Harvard should not become a Greek school," she said.
The legal challenge may have been inevitable given the controversy around the policy. Harvard's implementation committee did not consider the policy's legal standing in detail but noted in its report that "courts have upheld decisions by private colleges and universities to take strong stances based on their educational missions and prohibit student participation in private selective membership social organizations."
Harvard isn't the only college to crack down on single-gender groups. Hazing, alcohol use, sexual assault and other issues plaguing fraternities and sororities have led some higher ed leaders to ban the organizations outright.
This fall alone, Monmouth University suspended Greek organizations en masse, the University of Iowa suspended its fraternities and West Virginia University banned five fraternities for 10 years. College leaders and others say long-term solutions include stricter limits for fraternities around pledging and alcohol use, higher levels of direct supervision, more stringent state laws and better tactics for getting fraternities to self-police.