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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
The Faculty Council has declined to vote on a motion opposing the College’s historic sanctions against members of final clubs, fraternities, and sororities, citing uncertainty about whether a vote for the motion would impact the policy.
One member of the Council, Japanese history professor David L. Howell, will also abstain from the upcoming Faculty-wide vote on the motion, which states that “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join.” The motion will go to a vote Tuesday at the monthly Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, according to a meeting agenda obtained by The Crimson. The 18-member Faculty Council usually votes on Faculty-wide proposals before the monthly meetings take place.
Spearheaded by computer science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, the motion argues that the College’s policy infringes upon students’ freedom of association. Proponents of the motion say a Faculty vote would revoke the sanctions, which, starting with the Class of 2021, prohibit members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations from holding varsity captaincies, becoming leaders of recognized student groups, or receiving College endorsement for top fellowships.
In an op-ed published in The Crimson Sunday, Howell wrote it was “highly unusual” for the Faculty Council—FAS’s highest elected body—to decline to vote on a motion. Though the Faculty Council has discussed the motion at several times, they have chosen not to vote on it at any of their meetings, including two in November, because the proposed legislation does not specifically mention the College’s policy.
In an interview, Howell said members of the Council had mixed feelings on the policy itself, but that “there was a consensus that the motion was so flawed in its wording that it was impossible to vote.”
Howell said it is unclear whether a “yes” vote would force the College to rescind the policy. But a “no” vote would appear to be in favor of discrimination, Howell argued.
“I think it’s hard for the Faculty to vote either yes or no, because on the one hand it’s not clear whether a yes vote would really require a change in the policy or what kind of change, or just a repudiation of the policy,” Howell said. “And then a no vote would be embarrassing, because no one really is against freedom of association.”
In the op-ed, Howell also wrote that the motion is redundant “insofar as it would simply reaffirm a general anti-discrimination policy already in place.” The College’s student handbook prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, creed, national origin, age, ancestry, veteran status, disability, military service, or any other legally protected basis.”
In an email Sunday, Lewis questioned Howell’s claim, writing that he could not “find anything in [the College’s handbook] that would cover membership in clubs or other organizations.”
“Professor Howell’s op-ed raises a question as to whether existing nondiscrimination policies prohibit discriminating against students simply because they belong to certain clubs,” Lewis wrote. “If existing policies do prohibit that, then the new College policy is contrary to existing Harvard nondiscrimination policies and should be withdrawn immediately, without further action by the Faculty. If existing policies don’t prohibit that form of discrimination, then our motion is properly formulated to prevent it.”
In advance of the Faculty meeting, Lewis and College administrators each released “Frequently Asked Questions” documents describing their cases for and against the motion, respectively. In his FAQ document, Lewis addressed why the motion’s authors did not create legislation specifically against the policy, writing that he believed the Faculty is not sufficiently informed to legislate on final clubs and Greek life at Harvard. He added that the motion establishes an “important institutional principle” that the Faculty is “competent to affirm or reject.”
Administrators and professors alike have questioned whether the Faculty has the power to overturn the policy should they vote in favor of the motion Tuesday.
“It’s not clear to me personally that passing the motion the way that it’s worded would automatically force the College to rescind the policy,” Howell said. “I think it’s just not a good idea for us to be voting on things [when] it’s not clear what happens if we vote yes or if we vote no.”
Howell also said it is unclear whether the Faculty has jurisdiction over the policy at all. While the Faculty votes regularly on changes to the student handbook, Howell said he is unsure whether the sanctions will be included in the handbook.
“I think there’s a case to be made that it should’ve been brought to the Faculty ahead of time, but also that it’s an internal routine,” Howell said. “It’s a big rule, but in terms of its format, it could be a kind of routine rulemaking procedure that need not be brought to the whole Faculty. I’m actually not sure myself.”
While Howell says he is unsure which way the vote on the motion will go, he said “anecdotally” that many professors share his confusion. He anticipates another large turnout for Tuesday’s meeting. University President Drew G. Faust has said that the policy could be subject to change after faculty consultation.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
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