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Harvard is finally cracking down on its exclusive, sexual assault–prone final clubs

A final club scene from The Social Network
David Fincher's version of the Phoenix Club.
Columbia Pictures
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Harvard made a shocking announcement on Friday: Members of the school's six all-male "final clubs" would no longer be eligible to run student clubs, be recommended for fellowships, or captain sports team. That means no final club members running student government, the football team, or the marching band, or receiving Rhodes or Marshall scholarships.

This is really the only kind of lever the school has. Despite counting a substantial fraction of male students as members and serving the same social role on campus that fraternities and sororities do elsewhere, the final clubs are totally unaffiliated with Harvard. The school can't regulate them the way most schools can regulate their frats. So instead, the new rule effectively creates a massive disincentive to join the groups; after all, the kind of kids who go to Harvard are really into being presidents of clubs and getting fancy scholarships.

The reason for the crackdown is simple: The school concluded that the groups, and specifically their sex segregation, are major contributors to sexual violence on campus.

Harvard's internal politics often get overcovered in national media due to the overrepresentation of alums (like me) in the press corps. But this event could have national importance. It's the world's richest university targeting institutions that have boasted members like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, John F., Robert F., and Ted Kennedy, Bill Gates, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and many, many more, and which still have many powerful and influential alumni.

Moreover, the school's influence and prestige mean that its crackdown on the final clubs — a crackdown that extends to the much less important frats at Harvard — could set a precedent for how American universities deal with social organizations and their role in sexual assault.

What are final clubs, exactly?

Imagine a fraternity, except a very lavish one with a posh, well-furnished building that's in whatever the opposite of disrepair is. Its parties serve plenty of alcohol and are reliable sources of cocaine. It is all-male, naturally, and its parties let in members, their guests, and, overwhelmingly, freshman girls, both girls from the fraternity's college and ones bused in from the local women's college and the massive 30,000-student university in the city next door. No one lives in the frat, but there are bedrooms.

Then imagine that this frat boasts well-connected millionaire alumni who continue to fund it, that it charges heavy dues, that it doesn't let people choose to rush it but instead hand-selects those few elite sophomores it wants to rush it, and that it has its own wait staff to serve its disproportionately wealthy, white members. Imagine that its house includes a banquet hall, a game room, a library, even a full-size squash court.

Or better yet, don't imagine it. Watch The Social Network's fairly accurate representation of it:

This is basically what final clubs are at Harvard, and they are exactly as unseemly as they sound. I remember going to a September 2010 showing of the movie on campus, and much of the question-and-answer with Aaron Sorkin afterward was students asking how he got the clubs so right.

The name "final club" derives from a time, back when Harvard was all male, when there were a variety of similar clubs for students in each year. Final clubs were the last such clubs one could join — hence the name. The underclassmen-eligible clubs have largely died out (with the notable exception of the Hasty Pudding Club), but the final clubs have lived on.

Currently, there are six single-sex, all-male clubs: the AD Club, the Delphic, the Fly, the Owl, the Phoenix, and the Porcellian. The first five all subscribe to the "throw lots of parties with drugs and 18-year-old girls" model of Final Clubbing, while the Porcellian enforces a strict ban on nonmembers (and, thus, women) in all rooms of its clubhouse save the first-floor "Bicycle Room." Not coincidentally, it's gained a reputation as perhaps the most gay-friendly of the clubs. The Spee Club and Fox Club used to also be all-male, but recently integrated following pressure from the Harvard administration.

Their alumni rosters are pretty illustrious. The AD Club had publisher William Randolph Hearst; the Delphic had Matt Damon, Jack Lemmon, and J.P. Morgan; the Fly had FDR; the Owl had Ted Kennedy; the Porcellian had Teddy Roosevelt; the Fox had Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and T.S. Eliot; the Spee had John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Only about 10 to 20 percent of Harvard men are members of the clubs. The membership is picked through a process known as "punching": The club members select a group of sophomores they want to potentially admit, invite them to an event, and then put them through the wringer until a much smaller number emerge as members themselves. This effectively requires members to know an upperclassman in order to get punched, which makes vets of elite prep schools and private day schools, who likely have high school classmates at Harvard with them, disproportionately likely to get picked.

Each club has its own reputation, ably summarized by the Atlantic's Philip Sopher, but the overall vibe is very white and WASPy:

All but one of the many people I interviewed agreed that athletes and wealthier, typically white, students tend to be selected … The Final Club spectrum is purely pastel, however, representing various different shades of preppy. The Porcellian is the most elite club, with Teddy Roosevelt and the Winklevoss twins headlining its alumni corps. Stephanie explains that it is the most formal of the clubs, hosting nothing but invite-only events. Legend has it that the Porcellian tells punches that if they turn 30 and have not yet made a million dollars, the club will give it to them. This myth has been neither confirmed nor denied.

In addition to the Porcellian, there are seven other clubs. Stephanie, Steve, and Jim characterized them in this way: The Spee selects a more international crowd. The Fly is for "guys from New York". The AD is for "lax bros," the Pheonix is for "football and waterpolo," and the Delphic is for "ice hockey, baseball, and captains of several major sports teams." The Owl is "fratty, fun, lots of rugby players and oarsman, very open." The only club not known primarily for wealthy or athletic members is the Fox, which Jim describes as "open, fun, friendly, nice guys drawn from a range of Harvard extracurriculars, like The Crimson and sports teams." Stephanie agrees: "There are some nice guys there."

Despite the clubs' relatively small share of the male population, they wield outsize influence as the only places near campus you can drink underage without fear of getting busted by cops or resident tutors. That makes them a dominant social space, especially for women students under 21.

Due to the clubs' exclusion of women, a number of "female final clubs" have sprouted up, along with more traditional Greek life. But these groups generally don't own their own property. The Bee is the only female club to even have real estate, and it rents it from the Fly. There's simply no comparing them to their male counterparts. In the interest of even enforcement, though, the new rules apply to them and Greek life as well.

What it's like inside a final club

The Porcellian Club on Massachusetts Ave. in Harvard Square
The opening to the Porcellian Club, pictured in 1984.
Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The clubs' interiors are lavish. My friend Garrett Dash Nelson — a former member of Dorm Crew, Harvard's student-run housekeeping service — has collected various club manuals members have left in their rooms over the years, and they contain some real gems.

Take, for example, the guide to the Delphic Club. It specifies that the clubhouse includes a sauna, a locker room with showers, and a squash court. It serves five meals a week and employs both a steward and an assistant steward who cook for the students full time. The initiation fee is $775, the dues are $1,000, and "slush" is $650, for a total cost of membership of $2,475.

The Owl Club mentions its banquet hall and garden, explains that its members can buy chips, sandwiches, and other food from its own professional steward, and specifies dress code for its many meals, many black tie only (the twice-a-week lunches allow for casual attire, but no hats). A 2000 document from the Porcellian mentions its steward and his "loyal and efficient staff," implying more personnel than the Delphic or Owl.

The manuals are also revealing as to social life at the clubs. The Owl's manual specifies that male Harvard undergraduates who aren't members are not allowed on the premises ever, nor are recent graduates who aren't members or any male persons under 21, save students at other colleges preapproved by a member of the board. Women, however, are allowed as guests "only between Friday dusk through Sunday dawn."

"Note the codification of The Walk of Shame," Nelson writes. "Sunday dawn rolls around, and you are outta there."

"There is almost always beer on tap and we go through about 350 kegs a year," the Delphic manual explains. "With 350 kegs a year comes a lot of responsibility. Every time someone gives beer to a guest of theirs, the member is taking responsibility for that guest and his or her behavior at the club AND afterwards. If some random freshman girl comes over, gets trashed, slips, and falls on the ice outside and breaks her leg, we're fucked because she can sue the club and all the members who bought the alcohol. There used to be a club called the DU, but it no longer exists due to a lawsuit. This cannot happen here."

Yes, the manual really does specify that you should not get some random freshman girl drunk not because of the danger to the girl, but because that might put the club in legal jeopardy.

The Porcellian's manual has less to say about parties, given its strict single-sex identity, but it's revealing about the class stratum from which the various clubs pull their membership. "By the early 1980s, Harvard's admissions policies had significantly broadened the geographical, racial and ethnic composition of the undergraduate body," the history of the club states. "In facing this issue, the Club's conservative tradition ensured that change in its membership would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary." Translation: We let in black people, but very slowly.

Final clubs' sexual assault problem

One of Harvard's most prestigious final clubs
The Fly Club, located at 2 Holyoke Place near Harvard Square.
Austin Donisan

Final clubs haven't been officially tied to Harvard since 1984, the last time the school tried to push them into becoming coed. That's had pros and cons. On the one hand, it let the school maintain a standard against gender discrimination by clubs. On the other hand, it left the clubs out of reach of all school institutions. And in that absence, a culture of sexual assault began to fester.

This was not exactly an unexpected consequence of giving a bunch of entitled 21-year-old men access to real estate with private bedrooms, lots of alcohol, and an ability to throw parties to which basically only 18-year-old women are invited. And for years, activists on campus had vocally pushed to integrate or shut down the clubs.

But the clubs' reputation as hotbeds of sexual violence was given empirical heft by the release of the final report of Harvard's Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault, a group headed by former Harvard provost Steven Hyman and a number of professors, students, and administrators from across the university. It included luminaries like NYU law professor and alum Kenji Yoshino, behavioral economist David Laibson, and Harvard constitutional law professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin.

The report was very clear that final clubs are a major contributing factor to assault on campus. "Female Harvard College students participating in Final Club activities are more likely to be sexually assaulted than participants in any other of the student organizations we polled," the report states. "Other than in dormitories, Final Clubs are the single most likely location for a student to experience a sexual assault."

As the report was being researched and written, Harvard president Drew Faust and Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana grew progressively more critical of the clubs. Nearly immediately upon taking office in 2015, Khurana began meeting with the clubs to discuss gender exclusion and other issues. In March 2015, Khurana condemned a particularly misogynistic Spee Club party invitation as "offensive, crude, and sexist."

By fall, the pressure had led the Spee and the Fox to go coed, and sparked a major campus-wide discussion about the clubs. One student penned an op-ed explaining why he left the Spee, citing among other reasons a "friend who drunkenly confessed that she 'might have' been sexually assaulted in the upstairs bathroom" at a club party.

The release of the Task Force report made it clear that some kind of administrative action was forthcoming. An appendix to it bluntly recommended, "Either don't allow simultaneous membership in Final Clubs and College enrollment; or allow Clubs to transition to all-gender inclusion with equal gender membership and leadership." In other words: Force the clubs to integrate, or expel the members.

The club pushback was ferocious. The Fly Club demanded that Khurana recuse himself from discussions about the clubs, saying he was not an impartial decision-maker. The Porcellian, the one club without raucous female-inclusive parties, warned, "Forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct." In other words: If you start making us invite women in, we might sexually assault them. The Porc also commissioned a study criticizing the task force report's findings on the clubs and sexual assault; the upshot was "correlation is not causation," or, put differently, "maybe these girls were just likelier to get raped in the first place."

What happens now

The new policy is set to take effect for the class of 2021, whose members enter in fall 2017; this, coincidentally, is the same class that Malia Obama will be a part of. Students currently enrolled at Harvard, or enrolling this fall, do not appear to be affected. A "yet-to-be-appointed committee of students, faculty, and administrators" will be charged with developing an enforcement plan.

The predominant criticism of the move is that it impinges upon students' freedom of association. This may be true in a very limited sense, but it's a rather odd complaint in context. Harvard is itself a private organization, and a notoriously selective one at that. Is it illegitimate for Harvard to refuse to associate itself, through conferring organizational presidencies and team captainships and Rhodes recommendations, with the final clubs? Or is that itself an exercise of freedom of association? Is limiting final club members' privileges any worse a violation of free association that rejecting nearly 95 percent of applicants?

There will inevitably be enforcement issues with the policy. It's plausible that true secret societies would rise up to take the clubs' place, or that club members simply won't be too deterred by these particular sanctions. But they now face huge pressure to do what Princeton's eating clubs and Yale's secret societies did long ago and open up membership to the other half of Harvard's student body.