Harvard Drops Social Group Sanctions Following Supreme Court Sex Discrimination Decision


Harvard has dropped its social group sanctions as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision on sex discrimination, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in an email Monday afternoon.

In 2016, the College announced a set of sanctions against members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations, precluding students in those groups from receiving fellowships, athletics captaincies, and leadership positions in extracurricular groups. First applied to the Class of 2021, the sanctions received intense scrutiny and spawned a pair of lawsuits in state court and federal court.

Separately, the United States Supreme Court handed down a historic decision in Bostock v. Clayton County earlier this month, ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination against BGLTQ workers.

Bacow wrote in his email that, after the Court announced its decision, the Harvard Corporation recognized that its reasoning might have significant implications for the social group policy based on United States District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton’s legal reasoning in his decision to deny Harvard’s motion to dismiss the suit in August 2019.


“In essence, [Gorton] accepted the plaintiffs’ legal theory that the policy, although adopted to counteract discrimination based on sex, is itself an instance of discrimination based on sex,” Bacow wrote. “It now seems clear that Judge Gorton would ultimately grant judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor in the pending lawsuit and that Harvard would be legally barred from further enforcing the policy.”

While the Bostock decision primarily concerned sexual orientation and transgender identity, Bacow wrote, University administrators concluded the Court’s decision in the case made it clear Harvard would lose the lawsuit and “be legally barred from further enforcing the policy.”

The Corporation voted to rescind its prior approval of the sanctions after consulting with Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, and General Counsel Diane E. Lopez.

Despite the major change to Harvard’s policy on social groups, Bacow wrote Monday that the University maintains its commitment to combating gender barriers.

“Harvard is fairer and better when a student’s gender does not stand as a barrier to social opportunities while in college or inhibit students’ access to alumni networks that can help enable opportunities later in life,” he wrote.

In a joint statement released Monday, Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, and Judson Horras, CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, called on Harvard to drop the sanctions and work with student groups for future planning.

“Harvard’s discriminatory policy has done enough harm already,” they wrote in the statement. “It has decimated Harvard women’s groups and created a culture of fear and distrust. Harvard should stop discriminating against its students on the basis of sex, immediately.”

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.