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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
UPDATED: December 7, 2016, at 5:50 p.m.
A motion to oppose a College policy that penalizes members of final clubs and Greek organizations remains in limbo after a tense Faculty meeting Tuesday was adjourned without the expected vote.
After former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 presented his motion, which states that “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join,” the docket committee of the Faculty Council—the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ highest elected body—recommended to postpone the motion indefinitely.
Before any vote on the motion—or its postponement—could take place, however, University President Drew G. Faust abruptly adjourned the meeting just after 5:30 p.m., the regular end time of meetings, per recommendation from the docket committee. She indicated the discussion of the motion was tabled until the next full meeting of the Faculty in February.
“I didn’t understand what just happened,” Lewis said immediately after the meeting adjourned.
In May, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced an unprecedented policy that, starting with the Class of 2021, bars members of finals clubs and Greek organizations from holding leadership positions in student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for fellowships. After the announcement of the policy, Lewis and other 11 professors crafted the motion opposing it.
A vote on Lewis’s motion was on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, held in a Science Center lecture hall instead of the usual University Hall. Though Faculty votes are usually conducted by voice, professors eligible to vote were handed paper ballots as they entered the lecture hall.
At one point, however, it appeared there could be two possible votes at the meeting, after the docket committee introduced a motion to “postpone indefinitely” discussion of Lewis’s motion. Such a motion, according to Robert’s Rules of Order—the parliamentary procedure that governs Faculty meetings—would effectively kill the motion without an explicit ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote from the Faculty. Parimal G. Patil, a member of the docket committee and a professor of religion, said the motion would allow the Faculty to avoid the uncomfortable implications of a strict up or down vote.
“Neither a positive nor negative vote on the Lewis motion is in the interest of the FAS. A vote against the motion will appear as a vote in favor of discrimination,” Patil said. “A vote in support may also appear that way by implying that the Harvard faculty after much discussion, debate, and public spectacle voted against discrimination by voting to support those who discriminate.”
In advance of the meeting, the Faculty Council had declined to vote on Lewis’s motion, citing concerns over its wording. The motion does not explicitly mention the policy.
After Lewis and the docket committee presented their respective motions, several faculty members gave their own impassioned remarks about single gender social organizations and the College’s policy. English professor and member of a committee to implement the College’s policy Louis Menand gave an emphatic defense of the policy and its underlying logic.
“I am astonished that colleagues I like and respect have put their names to the motion before us. The motion is pure sophistry,” Menand said. “It basically says, ‘We cannot discriminate against people who discriminate because that would be a form of discrimination.’ Seriously? This is the kind of limits-of-tolerance hypothetical that you might be able to get away with in a freshman seminar, and it is unworthy of this Faculty.”
“Of course we can be intolerant of intolerance, and of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate,” Menand continued, raising his voice to applause.
When introducing his motion, Lewis argued that penalties levelled against members of single gender social organizations did constitute a form of discrimination on the part of the University.
“Of course such a punishment constitutes discrimination on the basis of club membership,” Lewis said, referring to the sanctions. “If Harvard refused to endorse black students for the Rhodes Scholarships, that would be racial discrimination. If Harvard refuses to endorse club members for Rhodes Scholarships, that will be discrimination on the basis of belonging to a club.”
Discussion at the packed meeting also raised issues of shared governance, with some professors sharply criticizing what they saw as parliamentary maneuvering and attempts to skirt Faculty input on the part of administrators. English professor James Engell, speaking neither in support of the motion nor the policy but rather in support of Faculty governance, sharply criticized administrators for forgoing Faculty input in crafting and unveiling the policy.
“What has happened since last spring, I believe, can be dangerous to the University and its Faculty. It is no understatement to say that it threatens a constitutional fabric,” Engell said. “This may not seem evident today, but in retrospect may be seen as a turning point in the governance of the University, and would not be seen as a good turning point.”
History professor James T. Kloppenberg, though, said in an interview after the meeting that to vote for Lewis’s motion and, in effect, against the sanctions, would be “an evasion of our responsibility as a Faculty.”
Two other Faculty members also defended the sanctions at the meeting. French Language and Literature and Comparative Literature professor Christie McDonald, who recently announced that she would resign as Mather House Faculty Dean in June 2017, thanked Faust and Khurana for taking steps to mitigate the “toxic atmosphere” of the clubs.
University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. cited his positive experiences as a member of Book and Snake, a co-ed secret society at Yale, and excoriated the final clubs for remaining single-gender.
“Separate is not equal,” Gates said. “Given their long histories, and extensive networks among alumni, the final clubs have unique status and power on campus and in the broader Harvard world, and that status and power cannot be simulated by telling women they are free to create their own final clubs.”
Explaining the decision to adjourn the meeting, docket committee member David L. Howell cited a lengthy list of people who had not yet been given the opportunity to speak.
“Lots of faculty members have children that they have to pick up from daycare or other family responsibilities and we thought it was important to try to be as family friendly as possible,” Howell added.
Some professors, though, saw the decision to adjourn the meeting as a cynical attempt to curtail Lewis’s motion. In the past, Faculty have had the opportunity to vote to extend meetings in order to continue debate.
Mathematics professor Wilfried Schmid said he thought the decision to abruptly adjourn “was an attempt to stifle the discussion.”
University Professor Helen H. Vendler criticized the adjournment, as well as administrators’ lack of Faculty consultation in creating the policy.
“Doing diktats is not the way to govern. I mean, it’s a petty tyranny to not let us take the responsibility that is due us. I can’t believe any of this,” she said. “I don't know how they could do this in good conscience.”
Howell, who penned an op-ed last week on his decision to abstain from voting on Lewis’s motion, also expressed dissatisfaction at the delay caused by adjournment.
“I don’t think anyone’s happy to have this continue—the next meeting is February,” Howell said.
In an interview after the meeting, Faust said she was largely unsurprised by the points raised by the Faculty.
“I think I’ve heard most of the arguments in one form or another before, but there was a lot of energy and eloquence,” Faust said. “People obviously feel very passionate.”
—Graham W. Bishai, Julia E. DeBenedictis, Andrew M. Duehren, and Derek G. Xiao contributed reporting.
—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
CLARIFICATION: December 7, 2016
A previous version of this article indicated that English professor James Engell spoke in favor of Lewis's motion. To clarify, he urged colleagues to vote for Lewis's motion to preserve Faculty governance if the University did not withdraw or suspend its sanctions on Greek organizations and final clubs.
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