Harvard Tries To Reduce Exclusive Clubs

14 May, 2016

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was a member of the exclusive Porcellian Club. Franklin Roosevelt was a member of the Fly Club. John F. Kennedy was a Spee.

Eduardo Saverin, who helped start Facebook, was a member of another club, called the Phoenix-SK Club.

Those are four clubs based near Harvard University that have a male-only membership. They are called Final Clubs. The clubs are not part of the university, but all of their members are students.

A 1965 story from The Crimson, the university's student-run newspaper, says the Porcellian club started in 1791 when a group of students got together to have a good meal. They thought it would be a good idea to do it on a regular basis, and the club was born. The others started in the 1800s.

There are also Final Clubs that admit only women and the traditional fraternities and sororities that you can find on other college campuses in the U.S.

When a second-year student at Harvard is invited to join one of these clubs, it is a big deal. The same 1965 story from The Crimson says rejection from the Porcellian Club was one of the biggest set-backs of Franklin Roosevelt's life.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of the Fly Club.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of the Fly Club.

These clubs have been a traditional part of life at Harvard.

For some wealthy, privileged students at Harvard, an invitation from the Porcellian or Fly might be the culmination of years of anticipation.

There have never been many racial or religious minorities in these clubs.

But those clubs and organizations may be in trouble after a series of recommendations by the school's dean, Rakesh Khurana.

Last week, Khurana wrote a letter to Harvard's president, Drew Gilpin Faust. He said these clubs encourage discrimination against women and minorities. They keep the university from having an inclusive, welcoming culture.

The university leaders say clubs that discriminate on gender are not part of the post-college society, so they should not be a part of a student's life while in school, either.

Harvard also published a study in March about how to prevent sexual assault. One key point was that Final Clubs, fraternities and sororities cause a "distinctive problem."

In her response to Khurana's letter, Faust said she was concerned "unsupervised social spaces" like these clubs can present opportunities for bad sexual conduct and alcohol abuse.

In his message to students, Khurana also called the practice of restricting the gender of club members "anachronistic," which means old-fashioned.

Faust says the make-up of the student body at Harvard has evolved to include women, minorities, international students and students who are not wealthy. But some parts of campus culture remain stuck in the past.

While the university cannot force the clubs to close or become more inclusive, it can limit the kind of influence that club members have on student life at Harvard.

For example, organizations like sports teams that receive funding from the university will not be allowed to have club members serve as captains or leaders of the teams.

Also, students who are members of these clubs will not be allowed to receive recommendations from professors if they are applying for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

Rhodes and Marshall scholarships are awarded to some of the best university students in the United States. The Rhodes scholarship winners go on to attend Oxford University in England. Marshall scholars win the chance to pursue a graduate degree at any university in England.

The new rules take effect in about one year. Students who begin their studies at Harvard in the 2017-2018 school year will have to follow those rules.

The university is taking steps to limit the appeal of these clubs. One way it hopes to do that is by sponsoring more on-campus social events.

Some students are unhappy with the university's decision.

Protests are coming from an unexpected group of students: women.

A local radio station says a group of women students protested the school's decision this week.

They say it is important for the university to embrace women-only organizations. One student says "on [a] campus and in a society that is so male-dominated, female spaces are crucial sources of empowerment."

Other students are concerned that if the university makes it difficult for students to be both in the clubs and active in student events, the clubs will become more secretive than ever.

But the university says its students will make good decisions and consider how joining these clubs might affect their futures.

Khurana says he thinks Harvard students are "straightforward, honest people ... who have a clear understanding of what Harvard's values are and what it means to be a member of this community."

I'm Kathleen Struck.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English based on reporting by the Harvard Crimson, New York Times, The Guardian and WBUR. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Are you a member of a secret club? Would you join one if invited? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

empower – v. to give power or authority to a person or group

anachronism – n. something out of place in time, or of a different time

distinctive – adj. having a quality or characteristic that makes a person or thing different from others

anticipate – v. to expect or look forward to something happening (with pleasure)

privileged – adj. having special rights or advantages that most people do not have

fraternity and sorority – n. an organization of students at a U.S. college – fraternities accept men, sororities are for women

club – n. a group of people who meet to participate in an activity

dean – n. a person who is in charge of one of the parts of a university (such as a college or school)

gender – n. the state of being male or female

encourage – v. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen