Harvard University has assured a women-only off-campus club it will be allowed to ignore a ban on single-sex club membership, as long as it makes a cosmetic change to its bylaws. It has not extended the privilege to all-male clubs.
Seneca, founded in 1999, is named after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that kickstarted the women’s rights movement in the U.S. The club has the explicit purpose of “strengthening opportunities for women at Harvard,” and it has never allowed men to join.
Such a policy should run afoul of a rule enacted by Harvard last May, which prohibits members of single-sex clubs from captaining a sports team, leading a student organization, or being endorsed for fellowships like the Rhodes Scholarship. The rule was primarily intended to force several all-male final clubs at the school to go co-ed, after a report blamed the clubs for a large number of sexual assaults on campus. But because it applied to all single-sex clubs, it also encompasses the handful of all-female clubs at Harvard.
Except now, apparently, it does not, because Seneca claims it has received a special dispensation from the school to continue being all-female.
“Like Women in Business or Latinas Unidas, although men may apply, our membership can be made up wholly of women without incurring the sanctions of the administration’s new policy,” Seneca co-presidents Fran F. Swanson and Avni Nahar wrote in the email given to The Harvard Crimson. Supposedly, associate dean of student life David Friedrich explicitly assured the club in May, shortly after the rule was announced, that it could “continue to operate as it always has” as long as its rules no longer explicitly ban men.
It’s a special exemption Harvard has apparently given to no other club, including any of the all-male ones. Friedrich told the Crimson that Seneca is in a special position because it is a 501(c)(3) organization registered with the IRS, and therefore isn’t a purely social organization.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus civil liberties group that has strongly criticized Harvard’s push to sanction single-sex clubs, ridiculed the concession for undermining all the justifications Harvard gave for the sanctions in the first place.
“This isn’t open. This isn’t transparency. And one certainly hopes it;s not in accordance with Harvard’s ‘deepest values,'” the group said. “This is encouraging a student group to blatantly lie about its policies and practices. It’s a disgrace to Harvard.”
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