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Citing Supreme Court's LGBT-Discrimination Decision, Harvard Ends Sanctions Against Single-Gender Clubs

Harvard students walk by as someone enters the Fly Club, one of the exclusive final clubs at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Harvard students walk by as someone enters the Fly Club, one of the exclusive final clubs at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Harvard University officials will end a campaign against the private single-gender social organizations that still operate around its campus.

The reversal depends on legal reasoning in the Supreme Court’s recent decision that bars  discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ identity. It represents a surprising victory for the single-gender organizations that have been fighting Harvard’s policy in federal court since 2018.

In a letter to the Harvard community Monday, University President Lawrence Bacow applauded the Supreme Court’s June 15 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. But he also noted that it struck a counterintuitive blow to the university’s policy on single-gender clubs.

Since 2016, Harvard has denied certain opportunities on campus — like leadership positions in its extracurricular activities and captain positions on its sports teams — to members of those organizations.

Then-President Drew Faust said that “final clubs” in particular — wealthy organizations that own and occupy historic buildings on campus — trafficked in “exclusion on arbitrary grounds,” and presented the policy as a necessary move to combat discrimination.

The university’s policy was also informed by a 2016 finding that the rates of rape and sexual assault at those “final clubs” were uncommonly high, though the university chose to put the emphasize the clubs’ exclusivity.

But that argument was dealt a blow in U.S. District Court last year, when Judge Nathaniel Gorton denied Harvard’s motion to dismiss complaints pursued by the clubs.

According to Bacow’s letter, Gorton’s finding “accepted the plaintiffs’ legal theory that [Harvard’s] policy, although adopted to counteract discrimination based on sex, is itself an instance of discrimination based on sex.” And in his ruling, Gorton drew heavily on reasoning from a case that was settled by the Supreme Court in Bostock.

All that suggests that Harvard would be unlikely to win the day if its policy were to end up under the high court’s scrutiny.

As such, Bacow announced, the university’s principal board voted to suspend the policy on Friday without, he said, abandoning the goal of fostering an inclusive environment on campus.

Bacow commended the handful of single-sex clubs that have voted to admit students from the opposite gender since 2016, including the Owl and Delphic Clubs — historically all-male organizations — as well as the campus’s all-female organizations.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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