Harvard’s War on Civil Society

Harvard University just announced new rules intended to force all private clubs on campus to go co-ed, under the guise of fighting sexism and rape culture, or something.

Starting with the class that enters Harvard in fall 2017, members of single-sex clubs will be prohibited from holding leadership positions on campus, according to a statement released by the university’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust. This would include athletic team captains; many club members have historically been captains. Members will also be barred from receiving the official recommendations required for prestigious postgraduate fellowships and scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, the statement said.

The new rules will apply not only to the six male final clubs, but also to other single-sex organizations, including five women’s final clubs and nine sororities and fraternities. An estimated 30 percent of undergraduates at Harvard belong to such clubs. Two other formerly male final clubs have already voted to admit women.

Members of the clubs are planning to challenge these rules as an infringement on their right to free association. That’s certainly the spirit of the rules, though it will be a hard case to make on the letter of the law. Harvard is a private organization (though one that benefits from many ties to government), and it has a right to impose whatever petty rules it wants on the lives of its students, just as an evangelical Christian college has a right to adopt rules against kissing or dancing.

Ah, but I hear you say, fashionable lefties at places like Harvard would scoff at that kind of puritanical restriction. Then why are they doing pretty much the same thing?

Consider the reasons cited for effectively dismantling the private clubs: that they “fostered an atmosphere of misogyny, sexual misconduct, and entitlement.” I am shocked—shocked!—to discover that there is entitlement going on at Harvard. But what’s all this stuff about “sexual misconduct”? The basis for this declaration is a report that parties held by the private clubs sometimes encourage—brace yourselves—”a gender ratio that makes it easier for members to have a sexual encounter.” The only news less shocking than the fact that Harvard kids feel entitled is the fact that college guys are trying to get college girls to sleep with them.

Congratulations, college administrators, you have just discovered normal life. And like good “progressives,” you immediately determined to stamp it out. Like the old puritans on the right, the new puritans on the left feel the need to impose strict regulations on their students’ pursuit of opportunities for sexual encounters. Several other Ivy League universities, spurred on by the same “progressive” fervor, have already required fraternities to become co-ed, which ought to decisively put an end to such opportunities, right?

It’s hard not to be sarcastic when confronted with this kind of foolishness. But there is a deeper issue that is not so funny.

Harvard is itself just a big private club full of very entitled people, and it has a right to impose its own little rules. But the system adopted by a university, particularly an elite university whose graduates go on to positions of power and influence, is a model for what it thinks society at large should look like. That is, after all, the stated intent of the new rules, to reform the world of the future by stamping out all vestiges of sexism on campus.

But by seeking to enforce its rules on private clubs that are independent of and not officially associated with the university, by attempting to monitor and control the behavior of its students in their own, off-campus private lives and make sure they conform to the current political orthodoxy, the university is setting a very specific kind of example. The model it is creating is that of a single, central authority dictating acceptable attitudes and ideas, with no independent lower-level institutions that are allowed to depart from the centralized orthodoxy. Like I’ve said before, it’s that old principle of liberalism: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

It is generally acknowledged that a free society cannot survive without a vigorous “civil society,” a proliferation of voluntary organizations that give individuals the opportunity to organize and cooperate independent of the state. It is also widely acknowledged that one of the first things a would-be dictator does is to dissolve or co-opt these institutions, precisely in order to clamp down on independence from the state. That is the model Harvard is adopting in miniature: a purge of campus civil society in order to remove any independent resistance to a one-party campus orthodoxy.

As they have been for years, with codes regulating speech and behavior and a rigorous bias against professors with dissenting political views, the universities are trying to train their students to feel comfortable and at home in a cultural microclimate of totalitarianism. This is what our top young people are being trained to regard as normal, so that when they graduate they can go on to run the apparatus of a one-party media, a one-party corporate establishment, and a one-party government bureaucracy.

When you want to wipe out civil society, you always have to do it by creating a bogey-man, an obviously evil and unsympathetic target that no one will want to defend. In this case, Harvard is invoking an old stereotype of the smug, entitled male Ivy League student. But in doing so, they’re living up to the stereotype of today’s campus leftist: smug, entitled, priggish—and deeply intolerant.

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