Harvard Drops Policy Targeting Members of Single-Sex Groups, But Damage Already Done to Women’s Clubs

posted in: Nik Koulogeoge | 0

The United States Supreme Court ruled to expand the legal scope of “discrimination on the basis of sex,” outlawed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The author of the ruling, Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote, “…it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”


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Harvard University President, Lawrence S. Bacow, cited the case as one reason to drop its social group policy. The sanctions denied student members of “single-sex” social clubs, such as fraternities, from obtaining certain positions of leadership on campus. It would also prevent Deans from writing letters of recommendation for such students to receive certain scholarships. The rules were met with immediate pushback from fraternity and sorority organizations once passed in May of 2016. They claimed that the Harvard policy was discriminatory in a lawsuit against the University.

A federal judge denied Harvard’s request to dismiss that lawsuit in 2019, suggesting that the policy may be discriminatory. That denial, plus the recent Supreme Court ruling, convinced Harvard’s administration that they were fighting a losing battle.

Tempered Celebration – Women’s Groups Have Suffered A Disproportionate Fate

One interesting aspect of Harvard’s policy was the apparent “decimation” of Harvard’s groups for women. Compared to their longstanding, well-funded, all-male alternatives, more clubs for women have gone co-ed and/or disaffiliated from inter/national affiliations. It appears that the willingness of a student to forgo on-campus leadership opportunities depended on the strength of their respective “single-sex” clubs to replace those opportunities.

This reality was not acknowledged by Bacow. The ban was scrapped because Harvard recognized that it could not legally enforce it, not because of the damaging effects it already had. It was as if they never happened. This should serve as an example of how well-intentioned policies can have negative, or even reverse, effects. (See this post on the negative outcomes of prohibitive hazing policies)

Effects on CFAA

Harvard made this announcement the same week that I wrote a post explaining the Collegiate Freedom of Association Act (CFAA). That bill was written, at least in part, to counter Harvard’s policy. It would ensure that no school which receives federal financial assistance money would follow in Harvard’s footsteps. Is CFAA still necessary?

I assume inter/national and inter-fraternal organizations will still push for the bill. I have reached out to the NIC for comment, and will update this post if or when I receive a reply. CFAA includes provisions which would classify mandatory “deferred recruitment” for single-sex organizations as a form of discrimination. So it’s relevance and reach go beyond Harvard’s single-sex blacklist rule.


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