Ex-Phoenix Alumnus on a Mission 


Dr. Tim McCarthy spills beans on club workings as he crusades against assault on campus. 

The door to Tim McCarthy 93’s cloistered Quincy office proclaims itself, in rainbow colors, a “safe zone.” Yet, the man himself had long been a participant, a proponent, and a living emblem, in fact, of spaces that were anything but safe. And on a sunny September morning last Thursday, he had his personal reckoning: twenty-five years after graduation, McCarthy renounced his membership from the Phoenix S.K. Club in a widely publicized address delivered at Memorial Church.

McCarthy was riven by the contradictions that had come to define him. He directs the Sexuality, Gender and Human Rights program at the Kennedy School, and is a trained feminist. Students and colleagues found it hard to reconcile his mission on campus with his involvement in a club built on exclusivity, elitism, and male privilege. Conversations took on tinted tones, glances shifted, and attitudes changed.

The tipping point came when Harvard released the results of the campus-wide Sexual Conduct Survey this past Monday. The administration chose to suppress the precise figures for how final clubs were contributing to sexual assault on campus but the clues were clear: the numbers were bad. Bad enough to get a administration hamstrung by years of apathy and inertia to wake up and take notice; to put, in the Crimson’s words, the 8 all-male Final Clubs “on notice.”

McCarthy’s dilemma was years in the making. He dropped out of the punch process sophomore year only to join the club his junior fall. Even after he graduated, he says he went back to the club “only as a young alum,” and only on occasions such as the Harvard-Yale game or Commencement when “other alums were in town.” He declares defensively that he hasn’t been back in “many years” and has never donated to the club.

He has no qualms in admitting that he gained from his Phoenix membership, both during and after his time at Harvard. He always had a place to crash, a place to “take [his] friends to” and party every weekend. If anything, he quite “enjoyed” the access to the physical space and the social privilege the club afforded him. Upon graduation, the perks continued in more subtle ways.

“While at grad school in New York, I gained access to parties I would never have been invited to through friends at the Phoenix; wealthy acquaintances at the Phoenix picked up the tab at dinners,” McCarthy says.

While the Phoenix did not open any doors for him as in the world of academia, he has “no doubt” he would have benefitted immensely off his club network had he opted for finance, consulting, or other entrepreneurial undertakings.

But the halcyon days of free dinners and exclusive parties are well past him: the dilemma is resolved. The sagging wire is taut once more. And now McCarthy has his own agenda.

He hopes to use his public presence on campus to provoke an open discussion on everything that is wrong with Final Clubs and Harvard’s social scence. What then is his vision for these clubs –would he dismantle them?

Not quite. But he wants to “provoke a reckoning” within these clubs of their role in supporting sexual violence and inequality on campus. He wants to change the way they “constitute their membership” with a more transparent punch process that is open to all genders and backgrounds. “The day for unaccountable, single-sex clubs is over,” says McCarthy.

McCarthy, who has been on both sides of the table as a punch and a ‘puncher,’ says the process is anything but equitable. “When we make decisions, we do not discuss their social merits. We talk about how cool the guy is—how he is on my sporting team, or how he went to my school,” he explains.

This admission resonates with widely entrenched suspicions that the punch process is designed to work against undergraduates who did not attend prestigious high schools or hail from low income communities; undergraduates who, in other words, do not mirror the traditional demographics of the clubs. “From getting punched to getting in, there is a toxic self-selection at work,” McCarthy asserts.

Opponents of final club regulation have argued that the exclusivity of these social clubs mirrors the exclusivity of religious groups or sporting teams on campus. To McCarthy, the lines are clear: final clubs, unlike the latter, are unaccountable to the administration. “These clubs luxuriate in the privilege of not being held accountable by Harvard,” he says.

The 153 year-old Spee Club’s decision to go co-ed may have seemed to herald a new era, but McCarthy stays unimpressed. Allowing a handful of women into what has historically been an all-male bastion would pave way for “neither equality or safety.”

Dean Rakesh Khurana sat in the front row at Memorial Church as McCarthy delivered his address and embraced the Phoenix-renouncee as he walked away from the lectern. Khurana has been unrelenting in his dealings with the clubs, arguing that no option is “off the table.” McCarthy, who claims to have been contacted by a “wide range of people” after his address went public on the Crimson website, declined to confirm if these included President Faust, Dean Khurana, or their merry band of officials.

But the hug could have symbolized the beginning of what may prove to be a potent partnership in the struggle against sexual assault and exclusivity at America’s oldest university.
Aditya Agrawal ’17 (adityaagrawal@college.harvard.edu) would support Dean Khurana for a 2020 Presidential nomination.