Two lawsuits have been filed against Harvard as of December 3, in both Boston Federal and the Massachusetts State Courts by a group of sororities, fraternities, and three anonymous male Harvard students. The lawsuits are against Harvard’s policy discouraging students from joining single-gendered social clubs by preventing them from holding positions of leadership in school-recognized groups or athletic teams and from receiving letters of recommendations for fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
The lawsuits come two years after Harvard decided to implement this new policy on unrecognized single-gendered social organizations (USGSOs) starting with the undergraduate class of 2021. While Harvard hasn’t recognized single-gendered organizations since 1984, this is the first time they have started to discourage against joining them, claiming they foster discrimination and hold misogynistic attitudes.
“Unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs), including final clubs, sororities, and fraternities, run counter to Harvard’s long-standing non-discrimination principles,” stated the university in a press release. “[USGSOs] have an outsized and negative impact on the social and personal experiences of Harvard College students.”
Credit: Stand Up To Harvard
“Harvard’s views that all-male organizations cause sexual assault because they are all-male and that there is no value to all-female or all-male organizations,” stated the federal lawsuit, “are sexist in the extreme.”
The Harvard policy was made originally to address all-male final clubs, prestigious and exclusive clubs that past presidents have belonged to, due to a 2015 survey on sexual assault which claimed that after Harvard dormitories, final clubs are the most likely place for sexual assault on campus.
Despite the policy’s intention to discourage students from joining misogynistic groups and to decrease sexual assault, the very women Harvard was trying to protect, have been disproportionately affected.
“While Harvard’s administrators tout the decision as a response to the recommendations of a report on sexual assault prevention,” stated the lawsuit, “penalizing young women for their involvement in a sorority actually denies them access to member-driven education and support systems shown to be effective in battling sexual assault, as well as alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and the everyday challenges of college life.”
Since the policy has been put in place, all four of Harvard’s sororities either had to shut down and restart as co-ed groups or shut down entirely. However, there are six remaining male final clubs and three fraternities still at Harvard said Quinn-Judge, a partner at the law firm in Boston representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit, in an interview with WBUR.
“It is women who have suffered the most under the policy’s implementation,” stated Kappa Alpha Theta in a blog post on their website. “Harvard has simply erased organizations that were created by women to support women.”
According to Kappa Alpha Theta, many sororities’ mission is to empower women and provide them with opportunities, resources, and networks for all aspects of their life. These are opportunities that some women in sororities worry they may have more difficulty accessing in coed groups due to gender-based bias.
“I don’t know if women are scared to apply for a leadership position, but even just looking at a national level, at our presidents, they’ve all been male. I think women are more likely to apply for positions if it’s just women running the organization,” said Katherine Cohen, former CEO of Boston University’s Eta Chi chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta. “Just getting a position, as we saw a woman who is super qualified for a position and a man who is not, a man can still win. So, it empowers women to get positions and become a leader, whereas in a coed organization they might not get that same opportunity.”
Credit: Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority
Cohen said that through Kappa Alpha Theta she was able to find a place that encouraged her to be a leader and hone new skills she might not have otherwise developed without her sorority.
“One of our main things is encouraging people to become a leader and I know personally if I were to be in another club I don’t know if I would have run for a leadership position,” said Cohen. “I think [the policy] it’s unfortunate because you gain so much experience and so many skills from becoming a leader in your own chapter and then you’re not able to apply them anywhere else because [Harvard doesn’t] let you.”
Members of their Harvard chapter found themselves at conflict with furthering their academic life and standing with the sorority that has given them a support system.
“By forcing women to make an impossible choice—between holding leadership positions and applying for scholarships and fellowships or being members of communities specifically designed to support and empower college women to have those aspirations—Harvard’s administrators placed our sisters in an untenable position,” stated Kappa Alpha Theta in their blog post.
While the sorority members view it as a choice between opportunities through their school and through their sorority, Harvard sees it as a choice between inclusive and discriminatory practices.
“The policy does not discipline or punish the students; it instead recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus,” said Harvard president Drew Faust and Harvard corporation senior fellow Bill Lee in a press release. “Ultimately, students have the freedom to decide which is more important to them: membership in a gender-discriminatory organization or access to those privileges and resources.”
Cohen said that while there are issues with sororities and fraternities, there are other ways to address these issues past broadly punishing students for their decision to be in one. The national issues mentioned included hazing, a lack of diversity, and catering to an upper white class which Cohen said need to be addressed across all sororities, not just at Harvard.
“It’s not just a Harvard thing, I think it’s a national level Greek life thing,” said Cohen. “A lot of people are being punished for what a small group of people does.”
The sororities and fraternities involved in the lawsuits created a website Stand Up To Harvard in order to voice their side of the story and help gather support for their cause. It is unknown when these lawsuits will each actually go to court.