This past week, Harvard announced that students who were members of single-gender campus organizations (like sororities and fraternities) would not be allowed to hold office in official school organizations or receive certain awards and scholarships, beginning with the incoming class of 2021. The university claimed that the single-gender organizations go against the gender-inclusivity promoted by the college and do not stand for Harvard's values, yet their defense of these points does not make sense.
Although the university claimed this decision is intended to promote gender-inclusivity, one of the main factors cited in defense of the decision was that single-gender groups create spaces which can increase the risk of sexual assault. According to University President Drew Faust, Harvard is "mindful in particular about concerns that unsupervised social spaces can present for sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse." Mere minutes later, however, Faust also asserted that Harvard is adopting the policy because gender-exclusive groups create spaces that are "rife with power imbalances."
Harvard's stated purpose for this decision and its defenses simply do not add up. The university claims that it made the decision for the sake of stopping gender discrimination, yet argues against the organizations on the grounds of sexual assault and power structures. Does sexual assault happen within groups like sororities and fraternities? Yes, undoubtedly. However, forcing these groups to become gender-inclusive just increases the risk of sexual assault, simply changing the danger from the risk of same-gender assault to the risk of assault by a different gender.
Furthermore, gender-exclusivity, as denounced by Faust, does not lead to gender-based power imbalances. Just because someone runs a group consisting of members of only one gender does not mean that they are not able to lead a diverse group. The existence of powerful men does not negate the coexistence of powerful women.
Perhaps the university's worst offense, however, is that by making this sweeping critique of gender-exclusive groups, Harvard is not only preventing individuals from having the opportunity to grow in university leadership positions, but also accusing all individuals in these groups of being discriminatory on the basis of gender. College students do not join gender-exclusive groups with the purpose of fueling existing power structures or creating imbalances; young adults join these groups to find friendship and community with people like themselves. Several members of these groups have taken to Facebook to denounce the decision and to state the reasons they love their organizations. By making this decision, the university is effectively stripping students of their chances to grow and lead -- simply because they wanted to find a place to fit in. If the president of Harvard is so concerned about power structures and imbalances, maybe she should consider the corrupt power structure that would accomplish its own agenda by robbing defenseless students of the chance to have community and leadership at the same time. I have just one question for President Faust: will you stand by this decision if Malia Obama wants to join an all-female group?