Two years ago, Harvard University took its first major step in cracking down on the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment in its male-dominated social spaces: go co-ed or face penalties. The penalties to any single-gender group members include giving up the chance to hold leadership positions on campus or win university endorsements or postgraduate fellowships. However, this ultimatum extended not just to male groups but to any single-gender groups on campus. Last week a Harvard sorority chose the third option–shutting down.
The Zeta Phi-Cambridge Area chapter of Delta Gamma will be closing its doors rather than going co-ed. The first group to make this decision, the choice to disband was made in May by a vote of members of the local chapter.
For years the university administrators have fretted over how to quell sexual violence at unrecognized fraternities and clubs. As these organizations are not officially tied to the university, the school has minimal power to sanction groups where sexual assault was common as well as mandate measures which might reduce the risk of sexual assault. Most notably within high-profile male-dominated social spaces known as “final clubs.” Like fraternities, membership of these organizations is highly coveted by male students and is known to lead to supreme social status and even professional opportunities after graduation. However, as all final clubs severed official ties with Harvard in 1984, “deeply misogynistic attitudes” ran as unchecked as the flowing alcohol in these spaces. It was said that 47 percent of female seniors who attended male final clubs events or participated in female final clubs themselves reported “experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.”
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard currently faces three open investigations surrounding its compliance with Title IX. In an attempt to rectify these wrongs surrounding the use of university funds in a way which violated Title IX’s gender discrimination policies, the school took a broad approach and ordered all single-gender organizations go co-ed.
While many have praised this step in limited sexual assault and harassment, some have criticized the school’s elimination of “support systems, safe spaces, and alumnae networks” created by female clubs. This was first reported by the Harvard Crimson in an article published in May 2016 titled, “Harvard Can’t Achieve Safty and Equality for Women If It Ignores Their Voices.”
Some groups have obeyed the sanctions and carried on. Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one of the nation’s oldest theater troupes which had only featured men since 1844, has officially gone co-ed.
Other all-male groups have been less willing to accept women. Some final clubs and fraternities have banded together with legal representation and lobbied for the PROSPER Act. This bill would potentially endanger federal research funding if Harvard follows through with the penalties for failing to go co-ed.
Harvard’s three unrecognized sororities conducted their standard recruitment process in the spring of 2018. Following recruitment, one sorority announced this summer that it would go gender-neutral. Delta Gamma, however, has declared it will be disbanding to avoid accepting men.
“The decision does not mean that we are succumbing to the university’s new sanctions and policies regarding participation in unrecognized single-gender organizations like ours,” the group’s president, Wilma Johnson Wilbanks, said in a press release. “We will continue to champion our right to exist on campuses everywhere. We believe the value of sorority is too great.”