Since as far back as 1899, final clubs have been recognized as a major problem on Harvard’s campus. In a speech that year, Henry Lee Higginson, Class of 1855, chastised the final clubs for “their small membership and high expenses” and “habits of exclusiveness and luxury which hurt our democratic university." In an effort to counter the power of these clubs, Higginson donated $150,000 to build the “Harvard Union” for all those not in final clubs.
Despite Higginson’s noble gesture, 122 years later, final clubs are still hurting the democratic spirit of our university.
Last June, a Supreme Court ruling made Harvard’s sanctions against members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations potentially unconstitutional, leading the University to revoke its five-year-old policy. As a result, Harvard’s crusade against clubs that segregate and exclude members on the basis of gender — and all too often social class and race — came to an end.
Harvard needs to realize that if it can’t beat the final clubs, it needs to compete with them. Harvard fights for its right to put together a diverse class. And now, to quote the Beastie Boys, Harvard needs to fight for its students’ right to party, democratically.
Parties are not trivial matters. They are the social life of the student body and determine whether Harvard’s social fabric tends towards integration and inclusion or separation and exclusion. The fact that the majority of students are excluded from the spaces where the majority of the fun is often perceived to happen is demoralizing and undemocratic.
Harvard’s social history consists of two big historical forces. One, a powerful proactive vision of increasing inclusion and the other, a bastion of privilege and exclusion. The good news is that the first force has been winning.
First, Harvard built the House system to prevent segregation by wealth. Before it, poor students lived in the Yard and rich students lived on the “Gold Coast” of Mount Auburn Street. Next, Harvard randomized housing so students couldn’t electively segregate by preppies, jocks, and artists — each in their own respective Houses. All the while, Harvard diversified its class. Today, Harvard students are majority people of color and over 15 percent of Harvard undergraduates are first-generation college students.
To its credit, Harvard makes extraordinary investments to defend democratic interactions on its campus. Currently, Harvard is investing $1.4 billion to renovate its inclusive residential houses and is legally defending its right to build a diverse class — which, if necessary, they will argue vociferously before the Supreme Court.
Starting now, Harvard needs to apply the same tools it used to promote a democratic vision in admissions and residential housing to its social life.
Currently, rather than being intimate, warm, and inviting, much of Harvard’s social event spaces are gigantic, impersonal, and surveilled. Final clubs, on the other hand, succeed because they have the exact opposite characteristics.
Fortunately, unlike the residential House system, competing with the final clubs doesn’t require immense resources. Harvard should have a policy that for every final club there will be a Community Club. A Community Club would be a small building, essentially a house, run by student groups committed to promoting inclusive social life. Students groups could then compete for two-year leases by proposing their vision of the Community Club and the inclusive events they would host before the Undergraduate Council, which can provide them with an annual budget.
Unlike the final clubs, all students would be welcome with no invitation list. And as these are privately-leased buildings, Harvard would not surveil these parties and would not police the responsible use of alcohol. Rather, the student groups would be selected carefully to ensure they have the best interest of their fellow students at heart. And in any event, student groups leading Community Clubs would lose their charter in two years or possibly earlier if unacceptable behavior is reported.
Peer institutions such as Williams, Amherst, and Bowdoin have all successfully established similar models, buying former fraternity houses and transforming them into college-owned, inclusive party spaces. And in fact, the Advocate and the Dudley Co-op, both of whose buildings are owned by Harvard, largely operate by this model already. These other schools show that potentially increased liability with regards to the consumption of alcohol should not be a barrier to inclusive and democratic social life at Harvard.
In addition to establishing a set of Community Clubs, there are other ways Harvard can positively transform social life on campus. For example, it can ensure that every residential House has large social venues much like the Pforzheimer House “Igloo” and the Cabot House “Aquarium.” And as The Crimson Editorial Board has suggested, Harvard should complete its residential house renovations with more suites with common rooms and reduce the number of hotel-like hallway singles and doubles which undermine a sense of community and an ability to gather — and yes, to throw parties.
Harvard’s proposed solution is for final clubs to have “no public parties.” This is the wrong solution. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis has famously said about speech, the remedy “to falsehoods and fallacies … is more speech, not enforced silence.” Similarly, the answer to discriminatory exclusive parties is not no parties, but more inclusive parties. Simply put, it’s time for Harvard to take parties seriously.
Nicholas S. Brown ’23 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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