Debate Reveals Divide

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HPU hosts Sanctions Debate.

Gestapo, Nazis, White Supremacists…terms all used by Harvard undergrads when discussing the Administration’s recent sanctions on Single-Gender Social Organizations. At least, these were terms put forth by the debaters of The Harvard Political Union’s Monday evening event. The event, publicized as a “Large-Forum debate on Harvard’s Sanctions on Unrecognized Single-Gender Organizations” took place in Harvard Hall 104 at 8:00pm. The resolution being debated was: “The sanctions placed on single-sex organizations by Harvard University are justified actions and will yield overall positive results.” Arguing in the affirmative were Tom Osborn ’20 and Amelia Goldberg ’19. Arguing in the negative were Alexandra Tartaglia ’17 and Madeleine Lapuerta ’20.

The Harvard Political Union (HPU) has a long history of celebrating the discipline of structured debate. Members attend and take part in debates for the sole sake of argument and not necessarily for a specific partisanship. However, the Administration’s sanctions announcement has produced a flurry of protests and criticisms from both sides. The resulting division of strong sentiments is felt across campus and certainly within the HPU debate Monday evening.

The sanctions announced by the College through Dean Rakesh Khurana and President Drew Faust late last spring were strategically placed at the end of term when students were taking exams and preparing for departure. The announcement stated that for students matriculating next fall and after, “any such students who become members of unrecognized single-gender social organizations will not be eligible to hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations or athletic teams.” Both Dean Khurana and President Faust emphasized that change is difficult, but insisted that this is one they believe should be forced upon their students.

After the announcement, a series of protests broke out against the policy. Women’s groups on campus joined together to protect their safe spaces and called, “Hear Her Harvard!” Alumni of the college and of single-gender organizations criticized the policy and defended their organizations. This fall, some groups have attempted to appease the Administration by opening up the punch process to more students, some even of the opposite gender. More unexpected emails from Khurana this semester have announced the establishment of an Implementation Committee that will decide the process for enforcing the sanctions and spearhead the execution of whatever that process may be. According to the Office of Student Life’s website page explaining this committee, the administration has coupled the sanctions policy with, “increases in support for alternative social spaces, budget increases for social programming in the College, and significant investment to update Harvard’s undergraduate Houses, traditionally a center for the student experience.” Students so far have been aware of a new OSL email in their inbox listing the OSL recognized social activities of that week, but if this so-called “increased support” has been felt more deeply than that, only time will tell.

Finally, Dean Khurana held a town hall meeting last week in the CGIS building on October 13th. The Implementation Committee and Dean Khurana met to field questions on the policy and attempt to explain the intentions behind it. The committee has also opened up a comment box in regards to the policy – which they announced with the invitation to the town hall. Though the recent and historic HUDS strike may have outshined the town hall in terms of campus buzz, student to whom the issue is important flocked to CGIS to express their concerns.

In light of all these discussions moderated by the University, it is important for the students to engage in discourse as well. Therefore, HPU asked for students to volunteer to take part in the debate and opened it up to any undergraduates.

At the Monday evening event, after HPU Moderator Tyler Jenkins ’19 outlined the structure of the debate (opening arguments, pre-viewed questions, crossfire, audience questions, closing arguments), Tartaglia and Lapuerta won the coin toss to begin. The arguments offered from their side focused on the hypocrisy of paternalism, the gross contradictions to the College’s charter and mission, and the dangerous “blanket solution” to sexual assault that the College is attempting to provide rather than creating more specific, structured ways to break down the problem of sexual assault. Goldberg and Osborn, argued in the affirmative (in support of the sanctions). Their arguments were that single-gender organizations perpetuate elite culture and power dynamics, “contribute to rape culture,” and “institutionalized heterosexuality.”

In the back and forth answering of questions, both sides seemed to narrow in on the issue of gendered safe spaces. For the negative, this meant that the enforcement of the sanctions would deteriorate the empowering safe spaces women have created for themselves on this campus through single-gender organizations. Furthermore, the plea was made for more education surrounding sexual consent and safety while blaming and punishing individual offenders more efficiently than the current system allows. For the affirmative, this meant that the power dynamic created by the single-gender organizations is more damaging and must be broken down. Emotional appeal was put to work in Osborn’s anecdote of a “female friend,” who was “almost crying,” when describing the harmshe has suffered through the dynamic.

The discussion of freedom of association and private versus public authority revealed some interesting points. Osborn alluded to the “freedoms” touted by white supremacists and even Nazis. He described the, “contractual nature between Harvard as a private school and its relationships with students,” as having priority over freedom of association arguments. Tartaglia, in response, quoted the school’s charter and complete separation from unrecognized clubs. Therefore, the civil liberties of individuals would be greatly threatened and infringed upon by the enforcement of such sanctions.

When time came for the audience to ask their own questions, the entire room seemed more energized. This was a time for surprises, criticisms, and the understanding of a whole lecture hall of students’ attitudes towards the sanctions. Jacob Link ’19 asked, “What mechanisms of enforcement does the Affirmative suggest to achieve what they hope will be achieved by the sanctions?” Goldberg’s answer was to trust in the procedures of the University while whispers of “spy network?” bounced around the audience and Tartaglia called, “like the Gestapo?!”

In the closing statements of both sides, the arguments they had made were reiterated. There was one point that both the Affirmative and Negative agreed on: that Harvard needs to take a stand against discrimination and sexual assault.

After the debate, Lapuerta described her reasons for entering this discussion as a commitment to ensuring that it is not ignored. She stated, “People will state whether or not they support the decision, but not necessarily provide any reasoning why. I think further discussion is disregarded because people are unaware of the greater impact the sanction will have, both on students’ social lives as well as on the climate of sexual assault on campus. It might seem like a simple regulation, but it is much more monumental to our community than is perceived.” Furthermore, Lapuerta referenced her desire to learn more about the policy and its implementation.

Such a sentiment is another point of agreement on campus: that students want to know more about this policy and have more of a voice in framing it. This is perhaps why a petition is being circulated to put the sanctions issue on a UC referendum! Such actions ensure that the single-gender organization debate will stay at the forefront of campus discourse in the immediate future.

Caroline Cronin ([email protected]) encourages students to engage with both their administrators and their peers to discover more about this campus issue and others facing us.