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How Social Issues Draw Harvard Into Legal Peril – See details Here
A GROUP OF fraternities, sororities and students filed lawsuits against Harvard University earlier this week regarding a policy set by the school in 2016 that placed sanctions on members of single-sex clubs.
Harvard University is a reputable School and has made it a lightning rod for lawsuits.
The lawsuits, which were filed in both state and federal court, argue that the policy discriminates against their organizations by barring members from holding school leadership positions and receiving recommendations for prestigious fellowships, among other things.
The policy was an effort to address all-male “final clubs,” which a sexual harassment task forcehad found fostered “misogynistic attitudes.” But in covering all types of on-campus and off-campus organizations, its implementation gutted the memberships of other single-sex groups and in many cases resulted in them disbanding altogether.
“We deal with Harvard a lot,” Emma Quinn-Judge, a partner at Zalkind, Duncan and Bernstein LLP and the lead lawyer for the state case, said Monday during a press conference. “We are certainly used to being up against Harvard and fully prepared to fight.”
Indeed, the lawsuits are just the latest in a series of legal attacks on the school – others also targeting social issues like Havard’s race-conscious admission policies and free speech – that, when taken in totality, highlight the outsized role the elite university plays in setting the bar for the rest of academia.
“Harvard is not just our country’s but maybe the world’s leading institution of higher education, and so it’s always going to be a lightning rod and it’s always going to be considered a leader culturally and an example-setter for other universities,” says Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Things that happen at Harvard are often emulated at other universities,” he says.
That’s certainly the case with the ongoing lawsuit against the school alleging its race-conscious admissions policy discriminates against Asian-Americans, which many in higher education see as a bellwether for how other private colleges and universities may have to adjust admissions decision-making.
“It seems to me that these issues are part of a broader referendum going on in higher education against the policies and practices that these universities have operated under for centuries,” says Zach Olsen, who leads the communications firm Infinite Global’s San Francisco office and oversees its crisis response and reputation management group.
“Taking a look at everything Harvard has on its plate right now, they are in an unenviable position,” Olsen says, adding that the issues the school is often targeted for are also happening at other campuses across the country. “From my perspective, it’s not anything that’s particularly unique to Harvard. It’s a tough game. Harvard is in a tough place because they are going to be targets because lawyers know they will get headlines.”
Another reason the school garners more pushback, many noted, is that as the world’s richest private university, with an endowment north of $36 billion, and one that’s governed by the Harvard Corporation, a small group that often operates outside public scrutiny, there’s often less accountability involved in decision-making.
“Of course it’s not a public university, so it’s not bound by First Amendment or open records or any normal kinds of accountability,” Shibley says. “So you have a powerful and rich university with less accountability than many other private institutions have by virtue of the way they are governed.”
The heat of the bright light doesn’t simply take a toll on the school’s legal and communications teams. It also spills over to the student body. Do the lawsuits impact the student experience?
“Of course,” says Conor Healy, a senior at Harvard who founded a group called Open Campus Initiative, which brings controversial speakers to campus with the stated purpose of testing free speech values. “Harvard is a very political place and people like to keep up with what’s going on.”
Emotions about the affirmative action case are running higher among students on campus, he notes, than about the policy on single-sex clubs. But Healy says most students embrace the position and understand that it’s largely a result of the lofty positioning of the school.
“People love to hate Harvard,” Healy says. “Part of the reason I think these lawsuits are being filed against Harvard is partly because people respect Harvard so much. In the eyes of many, whether it’s affirmative action case or the case involving fraternities and sororities, as Harvard goes so goes the rest of academia.”
“Harvard, rightly or wrongly, sets the bar,” Healy says. “That’s a burden that comes with the position of esteem that they’ve carved out for themselves in the world.”
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