Harvard Is Sued by Greek Houses Over Single-Sex Penalties

(Bloomberg) -- Harvard College’s sanctions against exclusive all-male "final" and other single-sex social clubs are "punishing" the school’s Greek organizations, especially the women’s, a group of sororities and fraternities alleged in two lawsuits.

The suits, filed Monday in federal and state courts in Massachusetts, claim "Harvard has engaged in an aggressive campaign of intimidation, threats and coercion against all students who join single-sex organizations and advocate for their continued existence," even suggesting that a student who joins such a group could be expelled. The college has singled out students who join the clubs for "scathing criticism," according to the plaintiffs.

The lawsuits demonstrate the challenge facing colleges that take on powerful fraternities and sororities, which have long fought in court to preserve their privileged positions on campus. Congress, which has many members who belonged to Greek-letter organizations, specifically exempted the groups from Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions.

According to the suit, by banning single-sex organizations on campus Harvard has "succeeded perversely" in eliminating nearly every women’s social organization previously available to female students at the school. Almost all of its all-women social clubs have closed their doors or renounced their status as women’s social organizations and become co-ed, say the plaintiffs, which include fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and sorority Kappa Alpha Theta.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order barring Harvard from sanctioning students in single-sex groups.

"Harvard has erased these empowering women’s spaces, and it has done so paternalistically, without the input of these women and to the devastation of their organizations," Laura Doerre, former international president of Kappa Alpha Theta, said at a news conference on Monday. The sorority is based in Indianapolis and has 171 chapters.

"These organizations have either had to renounce their proud status as women’s organizations or commit to admitting men," which "disrupts the very mission of our groups and tramples on students’ rights to freedom of association," Doerre said.

Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for Harvard, didn’t have an immediate comment on the complaints, which allege discrimination and violations of federal civil rights law on the basis of sex in an education program. The challenge comes as Harvard is defending itself against a separate lawsuit claiming it discriminates against Asian-American applicants, a case that could to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We must stand up to the culture of intimidation and fear that has been put into these students by Harvard,” Judson Horras, president of the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 national fraternities, said at the conference. “We must give them the opportunity to have a lifetime of brotherhood.”

Final clubs, whose mutually exclusive membership rules make them the last club a student joins before graduating, have long conferred the cachet of exclusivity. All but one of Harvard’s -- Porcellian, Harvard’s oldest -- began as local branches of fraternities. For decades these all-male clubs enjoyed independence from the college’s oversight. Recently the college has sought to phase out the off-campus groups, including all-male final clubs that count U.S. presidents and other power brokers among their alumni.

In 2016 a report by the school about sexual assault said single-sex groups like Harvard’s final clubs came with a sense of "sexual entitlement" and were a "vestige of sexual inequality." The report said 47 percent of women who participated in final club events "reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact."

Harvard’s policy, endorsed by then-president Drew Faust, the first woman to lead the school, didn’t amount to a ban. Instead, starting with the Class of 2021, the rules exclude members of single-sex clubs from leading sports teams and recognized student groups and from being endorsed for fellowships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

Even outside of the clubs, many at the university, including members of Harvard Law School, have voiced free-association concerns about the measures. The sororities in particular have asked why they should be subject to restrictions. Only a handful of private institutions, including Williams College, have banned fraternities.

A May 2018 survey by the Harvard Crimson, the school’s undergraduate newspaper, found that while most of the students it surveyed in the Class of 2021 said they weren’t interested in joining a single-gender social group, only 35 percent said they had at least a somewhat favorable view of the sanctions. More than 40 percent found the penalties somewhat unfavorable.

Rebecca Ramos, a 2017 Harvard graduate and former president of the college’s Delta Gamma chapter, said the university has eliminated key sources of support and empowerment for women, including for her younger sister at the school. The sorority provided her with leadership opportunities she couldn’t find anywhere else on campus, Ramos said.

“My sister cannot benefit because Harvard stole it away from her,” she said.

The federal case is Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity v. Harvard, 18-cv-12485, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.