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Eroding Student Freedom, One Authoritarian Policy At A Time

In this March 13, 2016 photo, people walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The university's first female president, Drew Faust, announced Friday, May 6, 2016, that students who join Harvard's male-only social clubs won't be able to serve as sports captains or leaders of other campus groups starting in fall 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)
In this March 13, 2016 photo, people walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The university's first female president, Drew Faust, announced Friday, May 6, 2016, that students who join Harvard's male-only social clubs won't be able to serve as sports captains or leaders of other campus groups starting in fall 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)
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Harvard University, ultra-exclusive dispenser of lifelong privileges, now claims that “privilege and exclusion (are) at odds with our deepest values.” Seriously. Does this mean that Harvard will begin loosening its admission requirements and start offering free tuition to all undergraduates (with the exception, perhaps, of gazillionaire kids)?

Of course not. It means that Harvard will punish students who belong to single-sex organizations of which university administrators disapprove — fraternities, sororities, and most of all, male final clubs. Students who dare to join these groups will be barred from “leadership positions in recognized student organizations or athletic teams” and will not be eligible for dean’s endorsement letters for such honors as Rhodes and Marshall fellowships.

It’s a bit like punishing students for private, off campus speech that administrators find offensive.

Harvard’s crusade against these particular exclusionary groups was sparked by concerns about sexual assaults and the misogynist attitudes the final clubs allegedly propagate. But these concerns are not discussed in Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana’s explanation for the new policy. Instead, with a straight face, he declares, “In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.”

Dean Rakesh doesn’t explain how the university manages to exploit its “extensive resources and access to networks of power” without promoting “exclusionary values.” Perhaps he thinks the answer is self-evident: Harvard is an “inclusive community,” President Drew Faust asserts, as she excludes from substantial benefits students whose associations she disdains.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rightly characterizes this new policy as a blacklist of students who don’t share Harvard’s “political preferences.” FIRE vice president Robert Shipley stresses, “I had hoped that universities were past the point of asking people, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a group we don’t like?’ Sadly they are not.”

There are, of course, numerous single-sex groups at Harvard that students may continue to join with impunity. Indeed, Harvard’s list of official student organizations includes affinity groups based on religion, race and ethnicity, as well as sex or gender, among other demographic categories, from BAGELS: A Queer/Jewish Student Group to the Half Asian People’s Association to the Latino Men’s Collective. Officially recognized groups are supposed to comply with the university’s anti-discrimination policy, which differentiates them from final clubs, sororities and fraternities that formally exclude members partly on the basis of sex. But these male and female only groups are not recognized or affiliated with Harvard: They exist and operate independently, which is why blacklisting students who choose to join them is such an affront to personal liberty. It’s a bit like punishing students for private, off campus speech that administrators find offensive.

Harvard’s punitive anti-association policy should be vigorously opposed, but the greater challenge for civil libertarians is defeating the illiberal authoritarianism that gave rise to it.

And, like most blacklists, this one does not just violate the associational freedom of people directly targeted. It limits the freedom of any campus group that wishes to associate with them, depriving approved organizations of the right to elect targeted students to leadership positions. As Harvard’s Undergraduate Council tactfully writes in responding to the new policy, “We strongly encourage the College and the advisory group enforcing these recommendations to be mindful of internal democratic processes of student organizations … Vetting of elected members of student government based on affiliation in certain groups is detrimental, and fundamentally opposed, to the vivacity of the democratic process.”

Is Harvard’s assault on free association legal? A private university, it’s not bound by First Amendment associational rights, but students punished for joining private, off campus clubs may find relief under Massachusetts law. They will not, however, find support from the many liberals or progressives who have applauded Harvard’s blacklist and share the hostility to fundamental liberties — of speech, association and due process — that now prevail on many America campuses. Harvard’s punitive anti-association policy should be vigorously opposed, but the greater challenge for civil libertarians is defeating the illiberal authoritarianism that gave rise to it.

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Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

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