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Harvard, taken to court, defends its new policy on fraternities and sororities

Harvard University has brought its legal firepower to bear against fraternities, sororities and other single-sex clubs suing to keep their role as havens of social life at the school.

The college’s new policy on single-sex social clubs –– endorsed by former president Drew Faust, the first woman to lead the school –– doesn’t ban them. But the rules, which cover the incoming Class of 2021, provide a powerful disincentive to joining the off-campus organizations, barring members from leading sports teams and receiving the school’s endorsement for prizes such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

On Friday, the school asked state and federal judges in Massachusetts to dismiss two lawsuits, filed in federal and state courts in Massachusetts in December, that claim the policy discriminates against the clubs on the basis of sex and violates students’ freedom of association.

Harvard says the rules are “lawful and wholly sex-neutral” and that outside groups like the Greek clubs have no right to impose their culture on the school. It argues that the claims of gender discrimination are false and have no statutory or legal foundation, and that the plaintiffs can’t show that any student was harmed.

“Harvard controls its own resources and endorsements, and students preserve the right to join organizations of their own choosing,” the school said in a motion to dismiss filed in federal court Friday. “This court should reject plaintiffs’ invitation to expand the laws to create a new kind of lawsuit that Congress did not create and no court has countenanced.”

Harvard has cited as inspiration for its policy such colleges as Amherst, Williams, Middlebury and Bowdoin, all of which have banned Greek life.

The plaintiffs –– including fraternities Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi, sororities Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, and three unidentified students who belong to exclusive all-male “final clubs” –– claim that Harvard’s sanctions are “punishing” the school’s Greek organizations. They allege that the college has “engaged in an aggressive campaign of intimidation, threats and coercion against all students who join single-sex organizations and advocate for their continued existence.”

The sororities say the policy especially harms women’s groups, arguing that by banning single-sex organizations on campus, Harvard has “succeeded perversely” in eliminating nearly every women’s social organization previously available to female students at the school.

The lawsuits demonstrate the challenge facing colleges that take on the powerful Greek clubs, which have long fought in court to preserve their privileged positions. Congress, which has many members who belonged to Greek organizations, specifically exempted the groups from Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions.

The policy on single-sex clubs “does not discriminate against any undergraduate student” but rather “allows students to make a fully informed choice,” Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman, said. “It also dedicates resources to students whose decisions reflect the college’s aspirations for inclusivity, helping them to open their organizations to the extraordinary diversity of Harvard College’s student body.”

Harvard adopted the policy in response to a 2016 report that addressed sexual assault and gender on campus. A university task force concluded the all-male clubs had “deeply misogynistic attitudes” and recommended that women be allowed to join them.

The school Friday argued that there was no evidence any student had been threatened, coerced or intimidated by the policy, arguing it doesn’t prohibit students from joining the unrecognized single-sex organizations and that those who do join remain in good standing. The school noted that the students the policy covers began matriculating in the fall of 2017 and were therefore on notice about it when they decided to attend Harvard.

That defense is evasive, the plaintiffs say.

“Harvard is avoiding grappling with the substantive facts and saying they have the right to do what they want to do. Our position is that Harvard students don’t give up their constitutional rights by matriculating at the college,” said Emma Quinn-Judge, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the state case, which alleges violations of the state’s constitution and Civil Rights Act.

She said it’s “striking that Harvard wants to treat as ‘incidental’ what has happened to the women’s groups at the school, which have almost entirely ceased to exist. There are numerous all-male groups but only one remaining all-female social group. That is a result of this policy.”

R. Stanton Jones, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the federal case, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Harvard said Friday that the sororities have no standing to bring a suit as they have no student members on campus and can’t show that anyone was hurt by the policy.

“Harvard should not have to change its commitment to nondiscrimination and educational philosophy for outside organizations that are not aligned with our longstanding mission,” Dane said.

The sororities are improbably casting themselves as feminist havens, said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA and a Harvard alumna.

“This is a really galling reapportionment of the mission of Title IX,” Williams said. “We now have members of these very elite final clubs and other groups who say they are the ‘victims’ of discrimination.”

She said sororities “need to be held accountable for their direct implication in sustaining the kinds of behaviors that are manifest in the fraternity culture. To treat them like they’re this feminist counterweight is really disingenuous.”



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