Final Clubs: The Exclusivity Problem

Imagine, you're a Harvard Sophomore. Each day, you open your door to see one of two things. 1. An envelope with your name, a wax seal, and an invitation to an exclusive final club event or 2.

Nothing at all.

Harvard College is one of the most selective institutions on earth. Yet, once students have matriculated, there is another layer of selection: invitation to a "Final Club". Final Clubs are social organizations at Harvard. Similar to fraternities and sororities, they throw parties, own property, and connect members to Alumni. Every fall each club invites roughly 1/10 of the sophomore class to attend selection events.

Final Clubs represent both the good and bad the school can offer. The good: Final Clubs promote deep tradition, create tight communities, and provide a social outlet for friends. The bad: Final Clubs are linked with deep exclusivity, sexism, and claims of sexual assault.

This past fall, two clubs moved to accept female members; a great step in the right direction. But their most damaging tradition, exclusive punch, still exists. In the "punch process", clubs invite 150-300 students to attend a mixer with their members. In each subsequent event, the pool of applicants is whittled down. If you're not invited to the initial event, you cannot participate.

The punch process is a throwback to the days when Harvard was all-male and all-white. It is one of the most damaging traditions the school has; a process that hurts students, the clubs themselves, and the school as a whole. To change, clubs should open up their first event to any student to apply.

For students, the punch process is stressful and divisive. Students who aren't invited often feel isolated, socially scorned, or rejected. As a "punchee" said in the Harvard Political Review, "People feel like they're not worthy or that they don't fit in if they have friends who are in final clubs, but they [themselves] didn't get in."

For students who do get punched, the exclusivity makes it difficult to share the experience with friends. In dorm rooms of 2 or more, often one student will be invited to an event, but the others will not. The situation causes strained relationships and secrecy between friends.

For clubs, "punch" limits the club's outreach. Currently, clubs invite sophomores who are friends of current undergraduates or are connected to Alumni. This leads to an initial pool that is homogenous and privileged. Students who attend preparatory schools, for example, are more likely to have upperclassmen friends than first generation students. Research from Stanford shows that diverse group are more creative and help members connect to new opportunities. To create a stronger membership, clubs should open up their initial events.

Even worse, the punch process creates a stigma around the organization. The goal of these clubs is admirable - to create a strong support group on campus. But, by excluding roughly 50 percent of the student body from even attempting to join, they make it difficult for members to defend their new community. In the past year, anger against Final Clubs has grown. The dean of Harvard College - Rakesh Khurana - has held repeated meetings with final club leadership over the past semester. The theme: change now or the university will apply pressure to force the change.

Finally, the "punch" process is damaging for the school as a whole. The mission of Harvard College is to create an intellectually, socially, and personally transformative undergraduate experience. The college does this by selecting a diverse class and providing the world's most generous financial aid. Yet, we face internal organizations - Final Clubs - that exclude more than half of the student body from applying.

The punch process is damaging. So, why does it still exist?

Inertia.

Old institutions have trouble changing flawed traditions. It took Harvard College until 1870 to accept black students,1975 to accept women, and 2015 to create electronic class enrollment. Some argue "punch" exists to select a high-quality applicant pool of a manageable size. But, other organizations show that this isn't true.

You can be selective without being exclusive. The Harvard Lampoon, The Advocate, The Signet Society, and Crimson Key are all organizations at Harvard that are selective and have open applications. An organization I am a part of, the Franklin Fellowship, invited any student to apply. In two weeks, we had 220 applications for 24 spots. We had limited space. But, we also wanted a diverse class based on merit.

Look at other schools. Princeton's eating clubs invite all undergraduates to apply. Fraternities and sororities around the nation have an open selection process. Few would argue that these organizations are weaker because they allow more people to apply.

Imagine now, you're a high school senior. Each day you check your mail box for one of two things. 1. A letter from Harvard college inviting you to apply or 2. Nothing at all.

If Harvard only allowed friends of currents students to apply, there would be a national uproar. As Nathaniel Horwitz put in the Harvard Crimson, "How would we (Harvard) reach the kids from high schools and countries that have never sent anyone here before--the kids who make this place special?" Individually, we'd hurt the ethos that hard work can lead anywhere. Harvard would lose the diversity that make its special. And our world would lose the social mobility that these institutions offer.

We are a growing cohort who believe the Final Club system is unjust, corrupt, and reflects the values of the late 19th century. Our request is simple: Finals clubs, open your first event to everyone. You'll be better for it, your school will be more inclusive, and the world will break down another unnecessary wall.