Four faculty members at Harvard University have released an opinion piece sharply criticizing the school’s turn towards a “Puritan” worldview that attempts to police the actions and beliefs of its student body.
The piece, published in The Harvard Crimson and written jointly by Harry R. Lewis, Eric M. Nelson, Margo Seltzer and Richard Thomas, concerns Harvard’s decision last spring to punish students who join a single-sex organization, such as a fraternity or final club. While students are not outright barred from joining, if their membership is discovered they are barred from holding leadership positions in recognized school groups, captaining sports teams or receiving a recommendation for academic fellowships like the Rhodes Scholarship.
Harvard justified its decision by declaring that “discrimination is pernicious,” single-sex groups are discriminatory and therefore tolerating membership in them would keep Harvard from “advanc[ing] our shared commitment to broadening opportunity.”
The four professors say the school is actually imposing a full-blown “values test” on its students for the first time in living memory.
“The president and the dean have identified certain values which Rhodes and Marshall nominees, team captains, and student leaders are expected to ‘advance’ in their private lives, not merely to observe on campus,” they say. “Perhaps not since the Puritan era has Harvard assumed such a posture of authority over the beliefs and associations of its students.”
The professors go on to argue that Harvard’s reasoning could eventually extend to punishing students based on their political views or even their religious affiliations.
“How many other associations to which students belong might be judged, with equal or greater plausibility, to be hostile to Harvard’s ‘values of non-discrimination?'” they ask. “What of the undergraduate who joins a lobbying organization that opposes gay marriage or one that combats affirmative action programs in higher education? Is membership in the Republican Party less an affront to ‘our deepest values’ than membership of the Fly? How about the Daughters of the American Revolution—or the Roman Catholic Church?”
The piece ends by comparing Harvard’s recent action to its decision to bar the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) from campus during the Vietnam War. While the school did so due to strong institutional opposition to the war, the school also chose not to punish students who joined ROTC as cadets, on the grounds that it would be “unacceptably paternalistic” to dictate student’s private choices in such a manner.
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