Several national fraternities and sororities are suing Harvard University over a 2016 rule that discourages students from joining single-gender social clubs by blocking them from leadership opportunities on campus.
On Monday, two fraternities and two sororities along with three anonymous Harvard students filed a lawsuit in Boston’s federal court, while another sorority separately sued the school in Massachusetts state court.
Both cases argue that the school’s policy discriminates against students based on their sex and spreads negative stereotypes about students who join all-male or all-female organizations.
Harvard officials did not immediately provide a comment about the lawsuits.
The rule was implemented in 2016 in an attempt to curb sexual assaults at parties at all-male final clubs.
Several fraternities and sororities filed a pair of lawsuits against Harvard University on Monday over a 2016 rule that discourages students from joining single-gender clubs by barring members of those clubs from leading campus groups or becoming captains of sports teams
Harvard does not officially recognize any fraternities or sororities, but several have been available to Harvard students in the past. Students say the universities 2016 policy has ‘blacklisted’ members of those organizations from holding leadership roles. Members of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits, are pictured last month
The group leading the charge against the university goes by the name Stand Up to Harvard, which writes on its website: ‘Before Harvard announced sanctions that punish students in single-sex social organizations, one in four undergraduates belonged to sororities, fraternities or all-women’s or all-men’s final clubs—opportunities protected by Title IX and the First Amendment.
‘Starting this fall, members of those organizations are, in a word, blacklisted—stripped of opportunities to hold leadership roles in Harvard organizations and athletic teams, and to obtain post-graduate fellowships and scholarships influenced or controlled by Harvard.
‘This decision was made unilaterally and rubber-stamped by the self-selected Corporation board behind closed doors, ignoring protests from students, faculty, parents and organizations.’
Announcing the lawsuits on Monday, Stand Up to Harvard wrote on the site: ‘Today, sororities, fraternities and students filed a pair of lawsuits challenging a Harvard sanctions policy that punishes students who join off-campus, single-sex social organizations.
‘The lawsuits describe how Harvard used a campaign of threats and intimidation to scare students into abandoning their fundamental rights to free association and to live free of sex discrimination.’
The group’s efforts have inspired hundreds of current and former fraternity and sorority members to speak out on social media under the hashtag #standuptoHarvard.
The group leading the charge against the university goes by the name Stand Up to Harvard. Many Greek organizations around the country have expressed their support on social media
At Harvard, single-gender groups aren’t banned, but students who join them are barred from leading campus groups or becoming captains of sports teams.
The school also refuses to endorse the students for prestigious fellowships, including the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Harvard officials crafted the rule to curb secretive all-male groups known as ‘final clubs,’ whose members include some former US presidents but have come under mounting scrutiny in recent years.
A 2016 report by the school accused the clubs of having ‘deeply misogynistic attitudes’ and tied them to problems with sexual assaults.
But the rule also applies to other groups, including fraternities, sororities and even choir groups that have gone co-ed amid pressure from the school.
The lawsuits argue that the rule has primarily harmed women’s groups, many of which have disbanded or started accepting men to avoid the school’s sanctions.
‘These students are being punished simply for joining private, off-campus, lawful organizations,’ Laura Doerre, former international president of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, said at a news conference Monday. ‘They are being punished for being women who simply want to have an association with other women.’
Laura Doerre (left), former international president of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, and Rebecca Ramos (right), a 2017 graduate of Harvard University and former president of the Harvard University chapter of the Delta Gamma sorority, each spoke at a news conference after the suits were filed on Monday in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harvard does not officially recognize any fraternities or sororities, but several have been available to Harvard students in the past, typically with houses near campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Membership in women’s clubs was at a record high before the rule took effect, according to the groups behind the suits. Now, they say, students feel they’re forced to hide ties with those groups.
Rebecca Ramos, a 2017 Harvard graduate and former president of the school’s Delta Gamma sorority chapter, said there’s a ‘culture of fear’ among current and former members of single-gender clubs.
She said some have been asked about their involvement during interviews for law school or fellowships.
Harvard president’s letter announcing 2016 policy change
Below are excerpts from a letter from President Emeritus Drew Gilpin Faust to Dean Dakesh Khuruna, dated March 6, 2016:
‘I join you in urging the unrecognized social organizations to discard their gender-based membership practices, to adopt an open application process, and to establish greater overall transparency. I recognize, however, that not all the organizations will accept our call for reform and that some Harvard College students will still seek membership in those organizations.
I agree with the judgment that, at this time, the College should not adopt a rule prohibiting students from joining unrecognized social organizations that retain discriminatory membership policies. Students will decide for themselves whether to engage with these organizations, as members or otherwise. But just as students have choice, so too the College must determine for itself the structure of activities that it funds or endorses (including through fellowship recommendations from the dean), or that otherwise occur under its auspices. Captains of intercollegiate sports teams and leaders of organizations funded, sponsored, or recognized by Harvard College in a very real sense represent the College. They benefit from its resources. They operate under its name. Especially as it seeks to break down structural barriers to an effectively inclusive campus, the College is right to ensure that the areas in which it provides resources and endorsement advance and reinforce its values of non-discrimination.
As your recommendations acknowledge, it will be important for the College to monitor the changing relationship between the single-gender social organizations and our students. I am mindful in particular about concerns that unsupervised social spaces can present for sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse. I ask that you report to me, at the end of each of the next three academic years, about the College’s assessment of the role the single-gender social organizations are playing in College life and whether the College should be considering any further action to advance our core institutional values.’
Read the letter on Harvard’s site here
‘They are scared to admit that they were part of an organization in which they take great pride,’ she said.
The federal suit was filed by the national sororities Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, whose local chapters disbanded this year and formed co-ed groups, and by the national fraternities Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
The fraternities say they have struggled to recruit new students and have faced financial difficulty with fewer dues-paying members.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s local chapter is also a plaintiff in the federal suit, along with three male students whose names were not revealed.
The suit says two of the students have been unfairly denied campus leadership roles under the rule and that the third has faced negative stigma even though, as an upperclassmen, he isn’t subject to the policy.
Both lawsuits are being supported by the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities, and the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities.
Harvard joins a relatively small group of schools that have sought to root out single-gender social clubs in recent decades. Amherst College banned fraternities and sororities in 2014, following similar moves at Middlebury College and Bowdoin College in the 1990s.
The federal suit against Harvard says the school’s policy violates the 1972 law known as Title IX, which forbids discrimination based on sex in schools that receive federal funding.
The suit says Harvard’s policy singles out men and women for punishment because of their sex and because of the sex of those they associate with. It also says the rule is rooted in stereotypes about men and women.
According to the suit, Harvard doesn’t place other limits on the types of groups students can join, arguing that they could ‘join the American Nazi Party, or could create an off-campus undergraduate chapter of the Ku Klux Klan’ without violating school policy.
The lawsuit filed in state court similarly argues that the rule violates civil rights laws in Massachusetts.
That suit was filed by the national Alpha Phi sorority, along with its local chapter and the Delta Gamma Fraternity Management Corporation, an Ohio-based group that manages housing leases for the Delta Gamma sorority.
Delta Gamma’s local chapter shut down in August, and most of its members later formed a new co-ed group.
The Delta Gamma Fraternity Management Corporation says it expects to lose $25,000 in revenue over the closure.
Both suits demand a jury trial and ask the courts to force Harvard to revoke the policy.
Read excepts from the federal complaint below: