In the question of how it should regard unaffiliated single-sex social clubs, Penn seems poised to “do a Harvard.” It shouldn’t.
As anyone who has been following higher education news for the past six months probably knows, the years-long conflict between Harvard College and the handful of independent single-sex social clubs to which many of its students belong reached a denouement last spring. On May 6, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust announced that she had accepted Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s recommendation to ban members of off-campus groups from athletic team captaincies, scholarship endorsements and leadership positions in affiliated student groups.
Last Friday, in an email whose timing seemed calculated to dodge publicity, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced the formation of a “task force” to join in Penn’s own multi-year conflict with the unaffiliated single-sex social clubs that operate in its vicinity. The task force, Gutmann said, will explore ways to “address the negative influence of these unaffiliated and unsupervised groups” and to more efficiently enforce the Code of Student Conduct against members of these groups.
It’s no certain thing, to be sure, but the specter of Harvard’s decision will certainly loom large over these proceedings. I would be very surprised if the task force’s members don’t at least consider advising that Penn, true to form, mimic its peri-Bostonian leaguemate in categorically punishing members of off-campus groups.
My advice to the task force is simple: don’t. Harvard’s decision was an unconscionable imposition on the associational rights of its students that should be reversed in its own halls and not repeated in anyone else’s.
The robust protection of associational rights is vital to the proper functioning of the liberal university. The effort to discover, define and live the good life — the essential mission of liberal education — is not a solitary goal. Scholars and thinkers have, since time immemorial, found it expedient and necessary to form groups, clubs and factions in order to bring their lives and their communities in line with mutually agreed-upon visions of justice and virtue. To do so freely necessarily requires the discretion to include and exclude, and sometimes to discriminate. A Democratic organizing group, for example, must be free to exclude non-Democrats, a racial equity group segregationists and so on.
I am not so blind as to believe that Penn’s off-campus social clubs are high-minded scholarly societies. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to grant the powers that be the authority to determine what groups are sufficiently virtuous as to deserve associational liberties. Freedom that is held only at the whim of authority is not freedom at all.
If Penn’s leaders refuse to embrace those principles on their merits, they should at least look to Harvard as a practical warning. Khurana and Faust’s power-grab has not exactly gone over well, earning condemnation from within and without. The justification they proffered is flimsy — that Harvard may punish students for membership in organizations that do not share Harvard’s institutional values of inclusion and equity. It has been rightly decried as hypocritical and McCarthyist by students and faculty of diverse ideological allegiances, former Harvard leaders and civil liberties watchdog groups alike. Its advancement will be an indelible stain on Khurana and Faust’s reputations, and deservedly so.
Just think about the ramifications of their claim. The Catholic Church’s policies and beliefs do not, in many ways, reflect “inclusion and equity” in the way that mainstream academic progressivism understands those values. Many college students choose to associate themselves with it nevertheless, knowing that it does not ordain women, condemns homosexuality and has a history of tolerating sexual abuse. That many students are Catholic no doubt has a significant influence on Penn’s and Harvard’s campus climates. Should either school therefore punish Catholic students who refuse to disaffiliate from their church? Of course not.
Yet this is precisely the power Harvard’s leaders have claimed over its students, and these are the stated grounds upon which they have done it. Penn’s task force should not follow Khurana and Faust off that cliff. Its members have, to date, given many reasons to believe that they are personally committed to preserving academic freedoms. It would be sad to see that trend reversed.
None of this is to say there is nothing that the task force can or should do. If Penn’s leaders believe that there are facets of the University’s own, internal infrastructure that shield members of certain groups from accountability to their contractual obligations to the school, they should change them. But treating students differently based on the external groups they choose to join is not an option if the school wishes to maintain its integrity. It is unethical, and it should be off the table from the start.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
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