WSA Blog-01

The elite of the elite.

Every fall at this time of year, just across the river, hundreds of eager 19-year-olds don their finest cocktail attire in anticipation of one of the oldest and oddest of Harvard social traditions: punch season. By Thanksgiving, after a series of formal social events and tense deliberations, carefully crafted cohorts of 20-30 sophomores will each be initiated into one of Harvard’s “final clubs”: historically single-sex undergraduate societies that resemble an upscale, Harvard-centric version of traditional college Greek life. Up until the 1990s, the final club scene consisted solely of 8 men’s clubs, each with around two centuries of history. With illustrious alumni including Kennedys, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts, these men’s clubs have access to a wealth of academic and alumni resources, and manage pristine, expensive real estate in the heart of Harvard Square. Their mansions provide a haven for underage students seeking revelry, and as a result their members serve as the gatekeepers to a significant portion of social activity on the College campus. Women’s clubs began propping up in the 1990s, but operate more as communities rather than centers of social activity, given their lack of real estate.

The price tag of making history.

History was made earlier this month when, after decades of debate and pressure from the administration, the Spee Club decided to begin inviting women to join the club. Speculation around what would happen next poured in through social media and alumni list serves: would the other clubs follow suit? How much alumni funding is the Spee foregoing by making this controversial move? Would the women’s clubs merge into the men’s clubs?

Not on my dime, said he.

The real question, though, is: what took so long? While Harvard is world-renowned as a leader in cutting-edge academic theory and innovation, it somehow manages to harbor the most antiquated and backward institutions that haunt university campuses in America. Sex-blind admissions didn’t start until 1977, and it took until 1999 for women to receive the same Harvard diplomas as their male counterparts. So after just 16 years of de jure male/female integration at Harvard, now we must face the slightly embarrassing reality that Harvard’s co-ed integration of final clubs lags far behind Yale’s and Princeton’s (20+ years of co-ed membership in its secret societies and eating clubs, respectively). In the 1980s, a decree from the university to integrate women caused all of the final clubs to disassociate from the College and move off campus. And still today, stubborn, deep-pocketed alumni boards threaten cutting off funding to the men’s clubs if women are let in.

Harvard: a mirror or a beacon of the future?

What are the consequences of this prolonged social imbalance? To be fair, not all Harvard undergraduates frequent final clubs – in fact, the majority find social solace elsewhere. But for those generations of Harvard women who did, they graduated with the habit of having to cater to the whims of their male counterparts to gain entry into parties. The expectation of how to succeed in a highly social community became closely tied with how well women meet the criteria of their male peers. If we make the gloomy hypothesis that there is some element of this phenomenon mirroring the real world, where women do find themselves at the mercy of men in hiring / firing / promotion decisions, then the question becomes: is Harvard meant to reflect the world we live in, or is it meant to lead the change we want to see in the world?

And this means what on our side of the river?

From an HBS perspective, the intricacies of undergraduate social life hardly ever reach across the river. However, there could be some takeaways from the College’s prolonged, turbulent journey toward full gender integration. It is a classic tale of elite capture and reluctance to cede any bit of a monopoly on power. When persistent pressure from within fails (male members calling for co-ed integration), and then social pressure from outside fails (other universities’ clubs allowing women in), there is no choice but to bring in the big guns: in this case, direct pressure from the administration. Without a truly influential stakeholder, however, the fight for integration easily becomes one that is swept to the side, particularly when everything looks so rosy from the top.

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