06/30/2016 03:15 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

Harvard, Rhodes, Gender, and Fraternities

Another version of this previously appeared in the Harvard Crimson on May 5, 2016.

Many universities have grappled with the discriminatory implications of single-sex fraternities and sororities, as well as the many undesirable effects they often have on undergraduate culture and behavior, including those relating to alcohol and sexual assault. Some institutions have successfully banned all such organizations, which is possible (though still often very difficult politically) when the organizations are supported by or legally linked with the university. But where the organizations are unaffiliated and legally private, banning or regulating them is much more challenging.

Harvard University, exasperated by the persistence and influence of unaffiliated single-sex fraternities despite decades of moral jawboning to open their doors to women, recently threw down the gauntlet with a new policy to penalize students who join such private clubs (particularly a small number of socially elite ones dating to the 19th century or earlier, with their own elegant buildings in central positions in Harvard Square and called "final clubs"). The sanctions will only go into effect for students who choose to attend Harvard after the policy was announced. Someone who thinks it important to attend an all-male fraternity can attend other institutions.

A key sanction Harvard has adopted in its opposition to single-sex final clubs is to deny their members endorsements for Rhodes Scholarships and other fellowships requiring the University's imprimatur. It also plans to disallow members from serving in university leadership positions, including on sports teams. I administer the Rhodes Scholarships in the United States, although I write this strictly in my personal capacity.

This is not the first time university endorsements for the Rhodes Scholarships have been linked to issues of gender discrimination.

In his late 19th century will, Cecil J. Rhodes restricted the scholarships he would endow to "male students." By the 1970s, and just as Oxford University and its constituent colleges started to act with urgency to create substantially greater admissions opportunities for women, the Rhodes Trustees, leading American universities, and many Rhodes Scholars felt it critical to open the scholarships to women. Harvard, for example, provocatively endorsed three women in 1973: RoAnn Coston, Emily Fisher, and Dale Russakoff, knowing of course they were ineligible. But the change to allow women, widely desired on both sides of the Atlantic, was not easy to effect. British law allowed the Rhodes Trustees no discretion to alter the terms of a will.

While British legal processes were underway, the Rhodes Trust was concerned that actions such as Harvard's and a few other universities, including the Universities of Minnesota and Oklahoma, Yale University, and La Salle University, two lawsuits, the implications of recently enacted Title IX, and threats by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department would make it impossible for the American Rhodes Scholarships to continue.

In 1974, while the British legal changes were pending, one of my predecessors as the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust ended the institutional endorsement requirement, leaving students able to apply without the formal support of their colleges, and leaving American institutions arguably more insulated from possible Title IX sanctions. Fortunately, the British government, through Parliamentary action, soon removed the discriminatory terms set in the Rhodes will, and 13 women were elected in 1976, including three from Radcliffe College Harvard University - Laura Garwin, Lissa Muscatine, and Denise Thal - to enter Oxford in 1977. The university endorsement requirement was later reestablished.

With Harvard's newly announced policy, this Rhodes Trust endorsement requirement will now have quite different implications for gender discrimination from those it did 42 years ago. Given the considerable number of Harvard sophomores who aspire to scholarships like Rhodes and Marshalls, (students join clubs typically as sophomores; they apply for Rhodes Scholarships as seniors or graduates), the effect of disallowing the applications of those who join organizations that the University has determined to be inimical to its core values of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination is likely to be great -- perhaps even more so than the sanctions to be attached to college leadership positions.

I was a Harvard Rhodes Scholar in 1974, the pivotal year of the behind-the-scenes changes that would open the world's oldest and probably most famous scholarship to women two years later. I remember being impressed by the moral strength of a few classmates who -- while they had the records of academic excellence, character, service and leadership our selectors look for, and wanted to study at Oxford -- did not apply because of the exclusion of women, an ethical standard the vast majority of us did not live up to. The Rhodes Scholarships could not have retained their stature if the discrimination continued much longer.

In 1973, the peak time of the behind-the-scenes legal challenges to the then single-sex Rhodes Scholarships, I was also the president of an all-male final club, the Spee Club. And I am thrilled that it voted to admit women last year, before the new Harvard policy with its attendant sanctions was announced (albeit then fully aware of the University's strong opposition to gender-restrictive clubs, and the Dean's moral jawboning backed by serious threats to do something about them).

The Spee Club has long prided itself for being perhaps the most progressive final club. It elected Catholics, Jews, adherents of other minority religions, blacks, Asians, Latinos, immigrants, foreign students, gays, and graduates of public high schools earlier and usually in greater numbers than most if not all other final clubs -- all of them, including the Spee, until these barriers were broken traditionally the near-exclusive domain of the boarding school sons of rich WASP families, often multi-generation-Harvard and final club.

Many of my fellow graduate members of the club had long advocated women membership; undergraduates until recently tended to oppose it. They are now, by my own observation, delighted. Whether most of my fellow alumni came to our inclusive views simply because of the natural sentiments of fathers with daughters; or because we came to realize that the club conveyed life-long benefits and privileges (modest ones to be sure) that should not morally be restricted by gender; or because we came to realize -- like Harvard itself -- that diversity made us stronger, and frankly far more fun and interesting; and/or because we simply came to recognize that the alleged separation of the clubs from Harvard was a self-serving but obvious fiction and that their presence is in-your-face and significant for all students, most of us have been strongly supportive of the change. I have little doubt that Spee members John F. and Robert F. Kennedy would be proud of their old club too -- and I suspect they each might also have rallied to the courageous stance of Harvard's president, Drew Faust.

Some day, most Harvard final club alumni will look back and wonder how we could so long accept gender discriminatory membership. Our colleagues at Yale and Princeton in somewhat similar institutions made these transitions some time ago and life has gone on, and quite well.