CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Several national fraternities and sororities sued Harvard University on Monday over a 2016 rule that discourages students from joining single-gender social clubs, marking the first legal challenge to the school’s policy.
Two fraternities and two sororities filed a lawsuit in Boston’s federal court, while another sorority separately sued the school in Massachusetts state court. Both cases argue that the school’s policy discriminates against students based on their sex and spreads negative stereotypes about students who join all-male or all-female organizations.
Harvard officials did not immediately provide a comment about the lawsuits.
Similar legal challenges have been rare but not unheard of. Wesleyan University was sued by one of its two fraternities after the Connecticut school ordered them to go co-ed in 2014. A jury sided with the fraternity last year, but the school is appealing the decision.
At Harvard, single-gender groups aren’t banned, but students who join them are barred from leading campus groups or becoming captains of sports teams. The school also refuses to endorse the students for prestigious fellowships, including the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Harvard officials crafted the rule to curb secretive all-male groups known as “final clubs,” whose members include some former U.S. presidents but have come under mounting scrutiny in recent years. A 2016 report by the school accused the clubs of having “deeply misogynistic attitudes” and tied them to problems with sexual assaults.
But the rule also applies to other groups, including fraternities, sororities and even choir groups that have gone co-ed amid pressure from the school. The lawsuits argue that the rule has primarily harmed women’s groups, many of which have disbanded or started accepting men to avoid the school’s sanctions.
“These students are being punished simply for joining private, off-campus, lawful organizations,” Laura Doerre, former international president of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, said at a news conference Monday. “They are being punished for being women who simply want to have an association with other women.”
Harvard does not officially recognize any fraternities or sororities, but several have been available to Harvard students in the past, typically with houses near campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Membership in women’s clubs was at a record high before the rule took effect, according to the groups behind the suits. Now, they say, students feel they’re forced to hide ties with those groups.
Rebecca Ramos, a 2017 Harvard graduate and former president of the school’s Delta Gamma sorority chapter, said there’s a “culture of fear” among current and former members of single-gender clubs. She said some have been asked about their involvement during interviews for law school or fellowships.
“They are scared to admit that they were part of an organization in which they take great pride,” she said.
The federal suit was filed by the national sororities Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma, whose local chapters disbanded this year and formed co-ed groups, and by the national fraternities Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The fraternities say they have struggled to recruit new students and have faced financial difficulty with fewer dues-paying members.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s local chapter is also a plaintiff in the federal suit, along with three male students whose names were not revealed. The suit says two of the students have been unfairly denied campus leadership roles under the rule and that the third has faced negative stigma even though, as an upperclassmen, he isn’t subject to the policy.
Both lawsuits are being supported by the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities, and the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities.
Harvard joins a relatively small group of schools that have sought to root out single-gender social clubs in recent decades. Amherst College banned fraternities and sororities in 2014, following similar moves at Middlebury College and Bowdoin College in the 1990s.
The federal suit against Harvard says the school’s policy violates the 1972 law known as Title IX, which forbids discrimination based on sex in schools that receive federal funding. The suit says Harvard’s policy singles out men and women for punishment because of their sex and because of the sex of those they associate with. It also says the rule is rooted in stereotypes about men and women.
According to the suit, Harvard doesn’t place other limits on the types of groups students can join, arguing that they could “join the American Nazi Party, or could create an off-campus undergraduate chapter of the Ku Klux Klan” without violating school policy.
The lawsuit filed in state court similarly argues that the rule violates civil rights laws in Massachusetts. That suit was filed by the national Alpha Phi sorority, along with its local chapter and the Delta Gamma Fraternity Management Corporation, an Ohio-based group that manages housing leases for the Delta Gamma sorority. Delta Gamma’s local chapter shut down in August, and most of its members later formed a new co-ed group.
The Delta Gamma Fraternity Management Corporation says it expects to lose $25,000 in revenue over the closure.
Both suits demand a jury trial and ask the courts to force Harvard to revoke the policy.
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