Although The Daily Pennsylvanian is a Penn-focused publication, we are acutely aware that the forces shaping what becomes news here on campus, like spring snowstorms that disrupt classes, often originate elsewhere.
It is with this in mind that we have, for some time, been following Harvard College’s attempt to reckon with the influence of unaffiliated student social clubs on its campus culture and environment — particularly given the similar, albeit newer, effort underway here at Penn.
A brief recap of the saga for the unfamiliar: Last May, the Harvard administration announced its intention to ban single-sex social club members from leadership positions in recognized student organizations and from receiving Harvard’s endorsement for prestigious fellowships. Shortly thereafter, it announced an “implementation committee” would be tasked with coming up with a plan to put the sanctions into action.
The announcement was met with anger from a number of directions. Some Harvard faculty, in particular, were concerned both with the implications for students’ associational rights and with the fact that the decision had apparently been made in secret, with no faculty input. Nevertheless, the “implementation committee” was convened.
Before that committee returned its recommendations, however, a second review committee with authority to “revise or replace” the original policy was announced.
In late February, the first committee returned its recommendations. While some had expected a retreat from the initial proposal, it instead suggested expanding the scope and severity of sanctions to be imposed on social club members. This left many at Harvard confused — what was the significance of these recommendations, given the second committee’s mandate?
Then, while Penn students were on spring break, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana announced that he would implement “nearly all” of the implementation committee’s recommendations. The second, theoretically superior, committee had not been convened yet. Days later, Khurana announced that he himself would chair that committee, despite having initially conceived of and then announced his intention to support the sanctions. The same day, Harvard President Drew Faust announced that she was accepting the implementation committee’s report. Those desiring an earnest review of the policy understandably feel they have been fleeced.
In our view, the haphazard process and divisive results at Harvard provide Penn with a near-perfect example of how not to proceed with its own examination. Specifically, there are important lessons that those who sit on Penn’s own new committee ought to draw from the experience of a peer institution.
First, the committee members should realize that early, frequent and meaningful engagement with a broad cross section of constituencies will be essential to producing an acceptable ultimate result. Harvard’s process began with the announcement of a specific desired outcome that had been devised in secret by a small number of top-level administrators. This indubitably contributed to the fierce opposition it has faced.
To its credit, Penn has already missed the earliest opportunities to repeat this mistake. Our own recently convened committee has laid out its purposes and aims in more general terms and has solicited input from beyond its own ranks. We strongly encourage continuing these efforts. Active attempts to meaningfully and earnestly engage with any and all groups who wish to be heard, including the off-campus clubs themselves, should be the foundation of any further decision-making.
On the flip side, community members should be vigorous in ensuring that their voices are heard. For those who believe themselves to be stakeholders in the outcome of this process, passivity will not do. For off-campus groups in particular, the right to credibly voice dissatisfaction with the result will be waived if the opportunity to participate in the process is not taken.
The second lesson to be drawn from Harvard is that the decision-makers must take their critics seriously. Khurana and Faust have, in public, been shockingly and embarrassingly dismissive of the chorus of voices — including former administrators, faculty, students and outsiders — who have expressed serious concerns with their proposals. Instead of engaging in good faith with these critics, they have circled the wagons and doubled down on their own preferences. This is no way to govern.
At Penn, we do not doubt that some will be dissatisfied with any end result. At such time as any preliminary announcement of their decision is made, the committee should look first to those who dissent, and seek earnestly to find value in their concern. In a community of scholars, one’s critics are not enemies. Though Harvard’s leaders have failed abjectly to recognize this truth, we hope that Penn’s will embrace it.
Lastly, Harvard’s troubles should be a lesson to Penn in the importance of respecting the associational rights of its students. The justification that Khurana and Faust have offered for their policy — that Harvard has the right to impose sanctions against students who join unaffiliated groups whose practices with regard to gender do not align with its values — is pernicious in its potential scope and applications. There is little in Harvard’s stated rationale for the policy that would preclude the punishment of students who belong to religious groups that treat the sexes differently for purposes of worship.
The intellectual project from which liberal education was born prizes the right of individuals to enter into voluntary associations for the same reason it upholds teaching and learning in the first place. The search for true justice and the struggle to bring the world into line with it are not solitary endeavors. If a student decides that their educational journey is best served by a single-sex social club, or a church that separates men and women during worship, or a progressive political club that excludes conservatives, Penn ought not to punish them for that choice.
By and large, students and faculty know that they are part of a project seeking to educate, not to indoctrinate. They can sense when their university seeks to tell, rather than to ask them what is right, and they properly resent it. Harvard’s leaders seem to have forgotten this, and they are paying the price in public embarrassment. Penn’s, we expect, will be wiser.