Harvard to Revoke Policy That Sanctions Students Who Join Single-Gender Social Clubs

June 30, 2020 Updated: June 30, 2020

Harvard University said it is reversing its policy that imposes sanctions on students who join single-gender social organizations operating on campus.

The university has been fighting a lawsuit brought by a group of U.S. fraternities and sororities and several individuals who say the policy amounted to sex discrimination.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow made the announcement on Monday, telling faculty and staff that the decision was made after it appeared the university would lose the lawsuit following a recent Supreme Court decision that bans discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Bacow said while the policy does not concern sexual orientation or transgender status, the top court’s decision had bearing on this case.

The Supreme Court decision upheld the reasoning of an appellate decision that the trial judge in this case heavily relied upon to let the case move forward when Harvard tried to get it dismissed.

The policy in question does not expressly prevent students from joining single-gender clubs that are not recognized by the school, but seeks to discourage membership by denying members from being able to serve in a leadership role in recognized student organizations and clubs, be a captain of a sports team, or receive the College’s required endorsement on applications for certain scholarships or fellowships.

The Ivy League school said the policy was designed to counteract “overt discrimination” on the basis of a student’s gender, specifically to discouraging the exclusion of students from social clubs because of their gender.

Five national or local fraternities and sororities,  and three individuals filed a lawsuit against the school, its president, and fellows of the school in 2018. The clubs and individuals alleged that the policy violates the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) and Title IX, which is a federal law that protects individuals from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

Harvard asked the court to dismiss the case, but the judge last year rejected their bid to do so, although he did reject the claims of two clubs and an individual based on their lack of standing. U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton found that it was possible that Harvard’s policy, which was aimed at counteracting discrimination, is in fact an example of discrimination based on gender.

The statue of John Harvard sits in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The statue of John Harvard sits in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Gorton said in his order last August that while a male student seeking to join an all-male organization would be subject to the policy, a female student seeking to join the same all-male organization would not be subject to the policy (and vice versa).

“The fact that the female student would otherwise not be allowed to join the all-male organization because of the organization’s own discriminatory policy does not alter the conclusion that the sex of the student is a substantial motivating factor behind the Policy,” Gorton wrote in his order (pdf).

He added that it is also irrelevant the policy applies equally to both male and female students.

“It now seems clear that Judge Gorton would ultimately grant judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor in the pending lawsuit and that Harvard would be legally barred from further enforcing the policy,” Bacow said in his announcement.

He added that as a result, the policy will no longer be enforced following a vote on Friday.

Bacow emphasized that while the policy is not being replaced, the guiding purpose behind the policy still applies, saying that Harvard is committed to making the school a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.

Following the announcement, the university sought to dismiss the case on the basis that the lawsuit was moot, but on Tuesday the group of fraternities and sororities filed a notice, telling the court that it intends to file a written opposition to Harvard’s motion.

“For multiple reasons Plaintiffs will explain in their opposition, this case is not moot and Plaintiffs are entitled to judicial relief from Harvard’s years-long unlawful discriminatory misconduct,” they wrote in their court filing.

After the school implemented the policy, a number of clubs either opened their membership or closed, however, a number of male “final clubs”—exclusive informal social clubs a student can join before graduating—remain largely unchanged.

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