In the recent media coverage of sexual assault at universities (The Today Show, May 19, 60 Minutes, April 17 and Care2), college administrations from Wake Forest to Yale to Indiana have been accused of quieting the claims of undergraduate assault victims in an attempt to save the face of their institutions.
Last fall, I began my freshman year at Princeton naively believing that the administration would never allow sexual assault to happen there — at least not without great promulgation and punishment. But I soon realized that Princeton’s eating clubs — the ten mansions that house the bulk of the university’s nightlife and, by extension, the bulk of the likely spaces of assault — are completely detached from the university itself. Although almost 80 percent of Princeton upperclassmen belong to an eating club, the university is not held directly responsible for what goes on there.
Luckily, all of Princeton’s eating clubs now admit both genders, making them infinitely safer spaces for women. However, it is significant that this crucial move towards a safer nightlife for Princeton women came from an undergraduate student, rather than a university official.
Harvard? Not so much
But at Harvard University, women have yet to be fully inducted into final clubs (Harvard’s equivalent for eating clubs), allowing many of Harvard’s parties to be enjoyed exclusively on male terms. Comprising a social scene that millions glimpsed through the movie, “The Social Network,” final clubs are historic houses that constitute a unique part of Harvard nightlife. While some all-female finals clubs have sprung up in recent years, the most prestigious, popular, and historical clubs remain all male.
“Final clubs are pretty accessible if you’re a pretty girl who knows how to dress herself provocatively,” said a female Harvard freshman who wishes to remain anonymous. “If you’re a boy, you can’t get in unless you have membership or are on some list, which is tough to get on unless you really know someone there quite well.”
According to this Harvard freshman, final clubs only constitute the dominant social scene if “you’re not looking hard enough.” However, especially for freshman girls who don’t yet have a firm grasp on their university’s nightlife, the famous and glamorously depicted “final clubs” can hold an allure that is hard to resist. In an all-male environment to which girls are only admitted if they are appropriately dressed, Harvard final clubs seem to endorse an environment conducive to sexual assault.
Universities back away
So what role does the university play in the regulation of this social scene? At both Princeton and Harvard, the university administrations severed ties with their respective social clubs. While the key difference between Princeton’s eating clubs and Harvard’s final clubs lies in the fact that all of Princeton’s clubs admit women, the Princeton administration itself had little to do with this difference — a difference which, I have noted, changes things considerably.
The force responsible for the admission of women into the last three all male Princeton eating clubs (Ivy Club, Cottage Club and, finally, Tiger Inn) was the undergraduate student, Sally Frank. In 1978, Frank filed a legal complaint against Cottage, Ivy and Tiger Inn, which led them to finally admit women in 1986, 1990 and 1992, respectively.
A promise broken
On the May 19 airing of The Today Show, Maggie, an undergraduate victim of sexual assault at Wake Forest University, said, “[The school officials] broke the promise that they made to me — that they would keep me safe.” When it was an undergraduate student — not a school official — who finally succeeded in forcing all ten Princeton eating clubs to admit women, we have to wonder whether university administrations are really doing all they can to promote a safe social environment for women. Today, Harvard needs its own Sally Frank or, perhaps, something even stronger: an administration that espouses her convictions.
Representing an Ivy League “elite” — and thus setting examples for colleges and universities across the U.S., the administrations of both Princeton and Harvard need to do more than sever themselves from the situation. It is not enough to claim that the social scenes have nothing to do with the institutions. The fact is that a school and its social life are intimately connected. At all institutions of higher education, protecting the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of their women should be more important than saving face.
Photo credit: Lauren Schwartz