Editorial: Harvard’s final club controversy underscores the poisonous power of old boys’ networks

Several single-gender final clubs at Harvard University refused to become co-ed and comply to gender-neutral membership policies last Friday, April 15. The six all-male social clubs, or “final clubs,” at Harvard are well-known as exclusive and secretive. From the Phoenix Club’s appearance in “The Social Network” to the long list of distinguished finals club alumni (including former presidents John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt), these clubs are an important component of Harvard’s social fabric. The clubs have recently reentered the public eye due to reemerging discussion of their poisonous attitudes. 

Harvard is the only Ivy League school that still has all-male clubs, as the other Ivy League schools’ clubs opened their doors to women long ago. The college has a few all-female clubs, but they do not have anywhere near the social influence of its male clubs. Harvard’s president as well as the Dean of Harvard College have both denounced the final clubs in public, strongly suggesting they are responsible for alcohol abuse and sexual assault. 

Some of the clubs have explored opening up their doors to more of their fellow students. Last year, the Fox and the Spee Club’s members voted and ultimately decided to admit women. Hasty Pudding Theatricals, another prestigious social club at Harvard, is discussing allowing women to participate in their performances onstage. However, other clubs have not progressed as quickly. The Porcellian Club, one of the most secretive, has not issued a public statement since 1791, when it was founded.  Nonetheless, Charles M. Storey, the graduate board president of The Porcellian, made a statement against these developments.

“Forcing single-gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease, the potential for sexual misconduct,” he wrote.

Storey’s statement seemed beyond belief, but underscores how easy it is for secret organzations of powerful men to accept as axiomatic their blamelessness, even when members engage in sexual misconduct, as he suggests. His statement invited warranted backlash because they condone assault and essentially place the blame for sexual misconduct on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Massachusetts), tweeted in response, “Or, instead of blaming women, you could focus on teaching members of your club to NOT sexually assault people.” Storey eventually apologized for his statement by the end of the day and resigned from his position on Sunday.

The comments he made revealed more broadly what many have been discussing already, the disturbing mentalities that breed in all-male establishments. At the point where people of all genders cannot feel comfortable in a prominent social space on a college campus, the college must reexamine the existence of these spaces. Harvard should not only continue putting pressure on finals clubs to admit women, but also reevaluate their exclusive nature. Accepting women would not necessarily solve the issues stemming from the privilege and exclusivity of these clubs; change is institutional, especially in centuries-old old boys’ networks. Colleges  and universities like Tufts are not immune to being exclusionary, either. Other schools can learn from the controversies playing out at Harvard currently in reference to campus Greek systems, and should support the inclusivity and openness of social spaces to all students, keeping a close and stern eye on what goes on inside their walls.