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Harvard Ends Policy On Single-Sex Student Organizations
On June 29, 2020, the President of Harvard University, Lawrence S. Bacow, issued a press release announcing that Harvard was discontinuing its policy penalizing students who join single-sex student organizations. The policy, which was announced in May 2016 and took effect prospectively for students matriculating in fall 2017, made any student who became a member of a single-gender social organization ineligible to hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations or athletic teams and ineligible to receive Harvard –administered fellowships. The policy applied equally to men who joined all-male organizations and women who joined all-female organizations but did not apply to women who joined all-male organizations nor men who joined all-female organizations.
In August 2019, in a case brought against Harvard by fraternities, sororities, and members of single-sex organizations, a United States District Court judge, Nathaniel M. Gorton, held that Harvard’s policy plausibly violated Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal funds. Judge Gorton reasoned that the policy discriminated based on the sex of the students in the social organization and on the sex of the student who associates with that organization. Judge Gorton also found that the policy was based on Harvard’s opinion of how modern men and women should act and penalized students who failed to conform to Harvard’s opinion by withholding benefits from those students. Judge Gorton concluded that this conduct possibly violated Title IX.
Mr. Bacow referred to the United States Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision in Boystock v. Clayton County and Zarda v. Altitude Express, which is a Second Circuit case that Judge Gorton cited to in support of his opinion and which was consolidated into the Boystock v. Clayton County case, as the reason for Harvard’s decision to discontinue the policy. In Boystock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court held that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination. Mr. Bacow explained that Harvard reached the conclusion that it could no longer continue to maintain the policy “under the prevailing interpretation of federal law.” Mr. Bacow stated that Harvard would no longer be enforcing the policy. The full press release is available here.
In the October 2019 issue of Private Education Matters, LCW reported on the decision in Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity, Inc. v. Harvard University, in the article “Policy Banning Single-Sex Student Organizations May Violate Title IX.”