The End of Final Clubs

As a member of the Harvard faculty, I’ve been asked for my opinion about the recommendation to phase out the College’s “final clubs” over the next few years.

On a theoretical or philosophical level, there are justifiable arguments on both sides. Those in favor of maintaining such organizations invoke freedom of assembly. Those in favor of eliminating such organizations describe the deleterious effects of segregation on the campus, with individuals with less financial or social capital feeling disempowered—just as blacks and other minority racial, ethnic, and religious groups have felt discriminated against over the course of American history, including the history of higher education.

I favor the removal of such organizations from Harvard College (and other parts of the University). In my view, they maintain 19th and early 20th century views that the College, as a social organization, should allow students to decide who should associate with whom and who should not be permitted to do so. In effect, they replicate the segregated social arrangements in the broader society—I keep thinking of the term “blackballing,” the action used to prevent someone from joining a secret organization. 

We are now in the 21st century, living in a diverse country, embedded in an even more diverse world. Harvard College should both reflect and encourage that diversity in its social arrangements and prepare all of its students for life in such a diverse national and global community. Everyone who goes to Harvard College should have the opportunity to know the College membership in its full diversity and should not feel disempowered or alienated because he or she has not been permitted to join an organization whose primary purpose is social. (The fact that some clubs may do civic work is commendable, but of course, you don’t need final clubs in order to serve the broader community.)

There are also considerable empirical grounds for eliminating the final clubs. Much sexual and drinking misbehavior occurs in the clubs and has been amply documented. In the last few years, hundreds of students of both genders have written of the pain caused by the existence and influence of these organizations on campus. In our own ongoing national study of higher education, we have heard from both students and administrators about the deleterious effects on students of organizations which, on a whim, can decide who belongs and who does not.

Also, I have to add that from the outside (and I not only did not belong to a final club but don’t even know where they are located), these organizations look like an effort to take individuals who already have more than sufficient privilege and make sure that they don’t lose even an iota of that privilege—while ensuring that those without those privileges don’t encroach in any manner on those that do. Do we really need to discriminate even further? Would it hurt those with privilege to abandon one privilege in favor of the more profound privilege of taking advantage of a truly diverse community?

A personal anecdote: as a 10 year old child of German Jewish immigrants, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I read a Classic Comic book. In the back pages was a contemporary account. I learned that the class marshals at Harvard College that year consisted of one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jew. That page solidified my desire to come to Harvard, where I have now been for over 55 years. I don’t think it is an accident that this year Harvard College has had a very high rate of admitted students who decided to matriculate. I think it is because the College is coming to be seen as a campus that is truly open, truly welcoming to everyone. The elimination—the “end”—of final clubs will reinforce that message; their continuing existence would seem embarrassingly anachronistic, serving “ends” that do not belong in our contemporary society.

To those who want to maintain the final clubs, I say, “Don’t think about what you are losing. Think about what you, the College, and the broader society will gain.” That would be a happy ending!

Gardner also commented on this topic for a radio story that aired on July 18, 2017, on WGBH. Click here to read or listen to the piece.

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4 Comments on “The End of Final Clubs”

  1. Jyoti Senthil July 18, 2017 at 4:10 pm #

    Dear Sir ,

    I would like to say , you put across such a powerful message in simplified words. In this 21st century , diverse culture , global awareness and global relocations should be accepted with open- mindedness nurturing global education.

  2. Howard Gardner July 18, 2017 at 6:08 pm #

    Thanks for your kind words. This is a topic about which individuals have very powerful views, often expressed with a passion that they rarely exhibit elsewhere. For me, the loss of exclusive organizations is a modest price to pay for the broader message that you and I support. Let’s hope that the leadership at Harvard has the courage to ease the final clubs out and to encourage social organizations that are genuinely inclusive. Howard

  3. John D. Harmon July 19, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

    The author speaks of the Finals Clubs like they are part of Harvard College, when in fact 30+ years ago Harvard severed all physical and virtual connections with them. The clubs sit on private property pay their taxes and have no access to Harvard-owned resources. What’s also missing in this piece is the fact that Harvard’s stated gripe with the Clubs is not that they are ‘elitist’ but rather that their membership is all-male. If they were coed, the proposed penalties would evaporate and these still exclusive entities that keep some students insulated from others on one social front would sail right along with nary a negative word from University Hall.

    • Howard Gardner July 20, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

      These are useful points, which I appreciate. They are also technical points– this is meant descriptively–in that the Clubs are seen as part of Harvard and they acquire prestige because they are seen as even more ‘exclusive’ (in both senses of that term) than the College itself. My argument is not technical, nor is it legal– rather it is a statement about what Harvard College has been over the last century, and in which direction it should be headed going forward. As I point out, there are defensible philosophical positions on both sides– at the end of the day, I am answering the question about what should be done going forward. hg

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