Harvard Aims to Restrict the Freedom of Association

Statue of John Harvard on the campus of Harvard University (Photo: Adam Drobiec/Dreamstime)
If you’re a Harvard student who joins a sorority, get ready to be hauled in front of a disciplinary board.

Harvard University is one of America’s great institutions. It is a place of scholarship, its name is renowned across the globe, and its prestige adds to American power and influence. Harvard plays a key role in the development of the American elite, where the future titans of industry, politics, and culture intermingle, learning from one another and honing their skills for their illustrious careers to come.

It is also, apparently, a place that has forgotten the virtues of free association.

That is the lesson to be learned from the Report of the Committee on Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations, made public earlier this week. The background: Last year, Drew Faust and Rakesh Khurana, respectively president of the university and dean of the college, announced that any member of an unrecognized single-gender social organization would be barred from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations — including captaincies on sports teams — and from receiving the university’s endorsement for scholarships such as the Rhodes and the Marshall. Single-gender organizations, the reasoning went, run counter to the Harvard ethos, and the time for their elimination has come. Alumni objected, members of the organizations — the vaunted “final clubs” as well as run-of-the-mill fraternities and sororities — objected, and the student body voted overwhelmingly to repeal the sanctions. A new committee was convened, presumably to tone down the heat of the edicts.

The opposite has occurred. Instead of producing a policy more amenable to the various interest groups, the committee of faculty members and a few students has recommended that the policy take an even more radical direction. If the recommendations are implemented, students will be prohibited from joining or participating in “final clubs, fraternities and sororities, or other private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students.” The purview of the edicts has expanded, from single-gender social organizations to all of them, and the prosecutorial power has increased: Those believed to be in violation of the policy will be hauled before the disciplinary board, not merely banned from the Rhodes scholarship.

That this constitutes an open attack on the freedom of association is obvious. If enacted, the policy will prohibit students from forming private clubs for the sake of discussion and enjoyment, among less salutary things. Doing so will carry the risk of serious censure from the university. The defense to be offered is the classical one, dating back to John Stuart Mill: Insofar as the freedom of association is an outgrowth of and accessory to the freedom of speech, it is a fundamental component of the university’s proper search for truth.

The typical response to the freedom-of-association argument is that the First Amendment, which codifies the principles in our constitutional regime, applies to the government, not to private actors, and that Harvard is free to impose whatever restrictions it likes on the conduct of its students. That is correct, as far as legal analysis goes. It would be fanciful to use the First Amendment as the basis of a legal case against Faust and Khurana. But this does not mean they have not violated one of its core principles, which aims to prescribe the ideal social ethic on the vast tapestry of American life.

The principles of the Bill of Rights encapsulate not merely a legal code but a social ideal that we should endeavor to fulfill, an ideal that should guide the conduct of the great institutions — educational or otherwise — of our society. Society functions best when core individual freedoms are protected, and among those freedoms is the ability to associate with whomever one chooses, in whatever setting one desires. Too often we — and especially leftists — view the First Amendment solely as a legal codifier, not as a social prescriber. But this view is far too myopic.

It’s true that some of Harvard’s social organizations have their downsides, including, most disturbingly, underage drinking and sexual assault. The latter was the justification for the initial sanctions against single-gender organizations last year, and the committee mentions both alcohol abuse and sexual assault in its report. The university should do what it can to prevent these evils.

But we should remember that the mechanisms for correcting these wrongs are multifaceted and do not require the forced closure of the clubs. Fraternities and sororities should be viewed as partners, not adversaries, in the fight to end sexual assault. A more moderate solution would be to reform these institutions, not abolish them. And the broader point is that non-desirable facets of an institution do not necessarily mean that the institution should be destroyed, nor do they mean that we should curtail individual freedoms in the process of doing so.

Harvard views the freedom to associate with final clubs, fraternities, and sororities as a direct affront to inclusion and diversity.

Let’s be honest about what this report represents. Harvard perceives there to be two virtues, one in conflict with the other: on the one hand, the freedom of association; on the other, “Harvard College’s commitment to non-discrimination, inclusion, . . . a healthy social climate, . . . [and] the value of diversity in the educational experience.” If Harvard allows the freedom of association to proceed untrammeled, it will infringe on those latter values. Any settlement will, therefore, involve prioritizing one over the other. In the current situation, Harvard views the freedom to associate with final clubs, fraternities, and sororities as a direct affront to inclusion and diversity.

But this is a dangerous path. Once a foundational value of the American republic is attacked in the pursuit of some other goal, the door is open to all manner of things. Who could now maintain with complete certainty that, in a situation where the freedom of speech interfered with “inclusion and diversity,” one of the foremost temples of American education would offer a full-throated defense of free speech? The precedent is set: Fundamental civic freedoms are mutable in the context of the university. They can be curtailed and sacrificed in a give-and-take with other matters of culture and politics the university deems important.

When it comes to participation in what are, in truth, glorified drinking clubs, the effect is limited, certainly tolerable. But it is hard to believe it will end there. It would be better for us all if it did.


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