Some Hijinks on the Harvard Fraternity Ban

by Noah Daponte-Smith

A couple of weeks ago, Harvard made a controversial announcement — a committee of faculty, administrators, and students had recommended that the university institute a ban on social groups, including fraternities, sororities, and final clubs. Accompanying the decision was an explicating report, which declared such organizations contrary to Harvard’s core values and noted that only a small minority of the committee’s members opposed the ban.

If the Harvard Crimson is to be believed, though, that claim may in fact be utterly baseless. The Crimson reports that the ban garnered only seven of the 27 votes on the committee and that two other proposals — forming a new committee on social groups and banning only gender-exclusive organizations — received far more votes at twelve and eleven respectively. (There was no limit on the number of options for which members could cast ballots.) With the initial vote inconclusive, the Crimson reports, the committee met once more without student members to talk it over, after which its leaders drafted a report recommending a ban on social organizations anyway.

There are (at least) two possible ways to read this. The first is somewhat innocuous: After months of debate culminating in a less-than-decisive vote, the committee’s leaders tried to represent the position they believed came closest to the group’s consensus opinion, taking into account the magnitude of fervency on all sides of the debate. The less charitable reading is that the administration had intended the committee to produce its desired outcome from the very beginning and always planned on overruling it if its decision was not to the administration’s liking. How you read it will depend on a variety of factors — your attitude towards the ban your preconceived opinion on faculty governance, and your thoughts on bureaucracy, among other things.

On balance, I’d say the second is more likely. The Harvard administration — proceeding downward from President Drew Faust and Dean Rakesh Khurana, the committee’s co-chair — has exercised a certain vigilance on the social-groups question for some time now, beginning with the original decision to ban members of single-gender organizations from receiving nominations for prestigious scholarships and holding leadership positions in campus organizations. And it would not be the first time that a bureaucracy has formed a committee to legitimate the decision it planned on implementing anyway. The only difference here is that the committee did not, in the end, entirely agree with the administration, and that the Crimson found out.

There is another domain along which the controversy has some salience. This is the ongoing decline of faculty governance at our nation’s universities; in its place is the ever-encroaching power of the autonomous bureaucracy. The committee of faculty, administrators, and students was assembled in part to ameliorate concerns among the faculty regarding the administration’s apparent usurpation of control over a crucial facet of undergraduate life. That the administration seems to have overruled the committee’s indecision suggests that the bureaucratic agglomeration of power may be a phenomenon propelled by its own momentum, one easy to start rolling but nearly impossible to stop.   

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