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February 1 2019

Harvard Due to Respond to Lawsuit Challenging Ban on Single-Sex Clubs

by Hadley Heath

Harvard University is due to file its response next week to a pair of lawsuits filed late last year by several sororities and fraternities challenging Harvard’s ban on single-sex organizations.

In 2016 Harvard announced that, beginning with the Class of 2021 (the freshman class of 2017), students who join a single-sex club will be barred from campus leadership positions (such as captain of a varsity athletic team) and will not receive a college endorsement for fellowships or scholarships (such as the Rhodes).

The two lawsuits – filed in state and federal court in December– seek to bar Harvard from enforcing the sanctions policy. 

Although Harvard’s justification for the policy is ever evolving, it seems the two main motivations for the policy were prevention of sexual assault and combating discrimination and elitism.

According to the complaint filed in federal court:

Harvard originally said that male students should be punished for joining men’s groups because those groups are responsible for a disproportionate share of sexual assaults at Harvard.  

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Then Harvard said that male students should be punished for joining men’s groups because the existence of all-male organizations makes women "second class citizens” and “restrict[s] women's liberties.”

Next Harvard said that students should be punished for joining any single-sex group for the first time including women's groups—because single-sex groups are contrary to Harvard's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

But according to the coalition group Stand Up to Harvard, the policy has resulted in fewer social, professional, and networking opportunities for women on campus.

“As a result of this policy, almost all of the once vibrant sororities and women’s final clubs open to Harvard women have either closed or had to renounce their proud status as women’s social organizations,” said Renee Zainer, International President of Alpha Phi, a plaintiff organization in the state case. “Together, we are standing up to Harvard on behalf of all students, because they have the right to shape their own leadership and social paths. Harvard simply can’t erase the spaces students value for support and opportunity.”

Interestingly, Harvard has made an exception for single-sex organizations for African-Americans. According to a September, 2018 article in The Harvard Crimson, students may still join Alpha Phi Alpha, a Greek organization targeted to African-American men or Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority targeted to African-American women without threat of sanction. The Crimson reports that these groups “are not subject to the College’s sanctions because their membership spans multiple schools.” Alpha Phi Alpha accepts members from Harvard, MIT, and Tufts; Alpha Kappa Alpha admits students attending Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley. The Crimson article notes that, although these two fraternities and sororities are exempt from the penalties, “their single-gender status means they cannot receive official College recognition.”

The federal lawsuit argues that Harvard’s policy is based on pernicious gender stereotypes and, thus, runs afoul of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits educational institutions that receive federal money from discriminating on the basis of sex. The state lawsuit alleges that Harvard’s policy unlawfully infringes student’s right to freedom of association.

Tweet @Harvard to let the university know you object to its ban on single-sex organizations using the hashtags #StandUpToHarvard and #IWF.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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