Monday, July 17, 2017

Further comments on the social club policy

FAS has set up a website for faculty to post comments about the policy. (Actually, the report, which links to the site, says "faculty and students," but students tell me they can't log into it.) Here is the comment I just posted there.

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This drastic recommendation is the product of anecdote and generalization, rather than data and analysis. The anecdotes are largely about men’s clubs, and though the report doesn’t mention it, most of the students affected by the policy would be women. Rather than targeting the malefactors and placing them in statistical context, the report uses dramatic stories to justify moves against clubs that have done nothing wrong. It is as though an attack by somebody’s Rottweiler was justification enough for taking away other people’s service dogs, St. Bernards, and poodles.

The use of “exclusivity” to consign all the women’s clubs to the same fate as the most drunken of the men’s final clubs seems almost certainly designed to meet the President’s condition of not inviting a lawsuit—which recent Crimson reporting suggests may happen anyway. Women members will testify that these organizations have grown for reasons that have nothing to do with the drunken parties that happen at some male final clubs; alumnae have told me that the support they received from other members was not just enjoyable, but essential to their success at Harvard. The report offers no evidence that getting into one of the women’s organizations is particularly competitive, relative to the psychic rewards of membership (it is probably less stressful than repeatedly being “lotteried by application” out of limited-enrollment FAS courses). The report’s vague call for “increased efforts to foster other social opportunities for students” sounds a good deal like a recommendation to “repeal now and replace later.” Of course, the argument that women’s organizations are “discriminatory” is irrefutable—but also entirely abstract: no evidence is offered that men have ever wanted to join them.

But these are practical details. Even if we were to conclude that the clubs “should” not exist, and that our students and alumnae are exaggerating their importance, the whole idea of punishing students for joining private, off-campus organizations—for peaceably assembling, as the Bill of Rights puts it—is deeply wrong.

It is true that the rights enumerated in the First Amendment are dangerous to established order. As Americans, we can ridicule our president, and can gather peaceably together in groups that cause the authorities to suspect that we are up to no good. It took supreme confidence on the part of the Founders to build into the Constitution the assurance that the government would not interfere with these activities. It might watch us closely and stand ready to respond when we break a law, but Congress could not make the speech or assembly itself unlawful. The reason these things are allowed, even when they are considered obnoxious or worse by prevailing social standards, is that the Founders understood that society is not static, and they had confidence that an enlightened if not always harmonious society will in the long run be better off, that social progress will occur, if people are allowed to speak and assemble peaceably even for reasons the authorities find offensive.

Harvard is a private institution and is under no legal obligation to follow the principles that apply right outside Harvard Yard. On the other hand, we should consider ourselves to be, if anything, more enlightened than the average place in America, more capable of governance through the rule of reason. This absolute ban—modeled on a policy for rural institutions where fraternities were residential and the entire social structure was drastically different—projects a lack of confidence that students should be allowed the same freedoms that the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. It is as though we don’t think that appeals to facts and reason will work with our students, and therefore there is no other way to proceed except by making a rule and then enforcing it with discipline. Yes, something must be done, but it is simply not true that everything else has been tried. For example, as I testified to the committee, the College has never tried (that I am aware) even the simplest of campaigns: to tell students not to join or go to the worst of the clubs, and why, and to explain the same forcefully to the parents of incoming freshmen. My own freshman advisees last year, who entered the College when it was at peak alarm about the ills of USGSOs, reported that no one had said a word to them about this subject in any orientation, proctor meeting, or written communication.

We are an educational institution. We teach students in everything we do. If we can teach students to guard themselves against infectious diseases without quarantining them, we can get them to stay away from those clubs where we have good reasons to think they should not go. Let’s give our students, and ourselves, more credit than to say that the only possible response is an outright ban, which to be effective would have to be enforced by some system of tips from informants, surveillance of off-campus restaurants where suspiciously regular dinner meetings might be taking place, and Ad Board punishments.

To proudly adopt a ban would be to teach by example that when a national leader attacks the free press or peaceful protests, he may be responding quite appropriately to the irksome downsides of citizens’ exercise of their civil liberties. Just because the rest of the world is finding authoritarianism more congenial than personal freedom, that doesn’t mean Harvard has to follow suit.



4 comments:

  1. Well said, Prof. Lewis. I share all the sentiments you eloquently expressed. I appreciate and applaud your courage to stand in opposition to the totalitarian and juvenile actions of the administration, which run counter to the mission of Harvard to educate and empower.

    Tom Livelli
    Col '99/'00

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  2. Absolutely agree with Professor Lewis and with Thomas J Livelli Jr's agreement. I have only two things to add

    1) I have seen clear arguments why this is a bad argument, both from Prof Lewis and others. I have not seen any clear arguments defending the policy.

    2) If some clubs are ``bad'' then the discussion should be about how to make them ``good''. The banning distracts from whatever real issue there may be.

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