Park the Keg in Harvard Yard

Fraternities and sororities have descended on Harvard. Is the school ready?


According to the school’s official literature, Harvard life revolves around the House system of ?12 residential complexes, where 97 percent of undergrads eat and live. The houses are “designed to create a full collegiate experience” in which students foster “close and long-lasting ties.” That’s what the website says, anyway. The idea is Hogwarts, but without the sorting hat.

Yet this idyllic notion has long been, at best, a willful simplification. While students do live in campus housing, they often define themselves by the organizations they belong to — sports teams, musical groups, political societies, and so on. Acting as social hubs, these groups like to throw parties. But only a few of them, like the Crimson and the Lampoon humor magazine, have their own buildings where they can pump music and bring in alcohol. And dorm parties are widely reviled. Harvard’s houses may be historical buildings with great views, but many of the rooms are small. One rising sophomore says that during parties they can get “really hot and pretty gross sometimes. It’s just so many people, you can feel the sweat in the air.” Rather than deal with that, he’s started venturing off campus to MIT parties. Another problem with Harvard dorm bashes, students say, is that even registered events can be shut down before 1 a.m. because of noise complaints. Plus, concerns about liability have led administrators to craft a more-stringent alcohol policy, banning popular competitive-drinking games.

The infamous final clubs are the other social outlet on campus. There are eight of them, and they’re all-male and elite (à la the Winklevoss twins). Members of the clubs, some of which began as fraternities in the 19th century, have access to private mansions in the middle of campus, where they can drink and host parties without oversight from the university. The clubs were once an established part of Harvard (both Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt were members, and J. P. Morgan founded one), but the school withdrew recognition from them in 1984, after they refused to go coed.

Pushed underground, most of them have now been transformed from private societies into party meccas. On any given weekend night, female students from Harvard (and other schools) put on dresses, knock on the door, and hope to be let in. Guys, on the other hand, are out of luck unless they know a club member.

Female students have responded by starting their own exclusive social organizations. Harvard now has five all-female societies, though only one of them has a house of its own. And like their male counterparts, the female final clubs have a reputation for secrecy.

The result is a tiered social system: those who have access to final clubs and those who don’t. Most, of course, do not.


Into this divided system come the Greeks to fill the void. Fraternities and sororities are considered less exclusive than the invitation-only final clubs. They hold open rushes, and though they do eventually winnow applicants, students say they are less concerned with family wealth and prestige. (It’s worth noting that one famous former frat boy, Mark Zuckerberg, met his wife, Priscilla Chan, not at a fancy final club soiree but in line for the bathroom at a Greek party.) Harvard’s three fraternities host regular parties, whether at their house or in rented spaces around campus, according to interviews with the heads of the organizations. A handful of brothers in each fraternity live together off campus rather than in a dorm, but given Cambridge real estate prices, it’s hard to imagine the groups ever being able to afford a proper Animal House. Sororities organize formal parties as well as charity events, keep their houses alcohol-free, and prohibit overnight stays. That’s the official line, anyway. All of the organizations have weekly chapter meetings, community service projects, secret rituals, and websites.

Phillip Morris, the implausibly named outgoing head of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (there’s no relation to the tobacco giant), knew little of fraternity life when he arrived at Harvard four years ago from a middle-class town in northern New Jersey. “I had a horrible impression of fraternities,” says Morris, a politics junkie who has a job lined up at a Washington, DC–based government-relations firm. But the people he met quickly changed his mind. He feels the group’s members are more diverse than those he would find through his extracurriculars, which, he says, can “pigeonhole” students. He adds, “I don’t think anyone in their right mind could be satisfied with the social life purely in any Harvard house.”

  • Molly Bales

    I’ve got some bones to pick with your article, but first, in the interest of fairness, let me reveal my bias: I’m a 2010 Harvard grad, and I’m proud of my school. Having gone to public school in rural North Carolina, I am particularly sensitive to articles that connect the words “Harvard” to “elite.” (I know this is not part of your argument, but it’s such a preconditioned neural pathway that I feel compelled to dispel any kernel of that bias that may have snuck into this article.)

    My main critique of this article is the rejection of the house system as a source of community, and I generally disagree with the idea that the social life is so lacking at Harvard that social clubs are going to take over. I was in Mather House (the best house, obviously :)), and Mather was a huge part of my social life; I felt no need to join a social club. My best friends were all in my house with me, and my experience is not unique. My guess is that the appeal of exposing the ‘seedy underbelly’ of a prestigious institution prevented you from drawing a more accurate, albeit less tantalizing, conclusion: yes, there is a lack of social spaces on campus, yes, Harvard’s social scene is not the best (duh! we’re a bunch of nerds! ;)), and, yes, that has contributed to the growth of social clubs. However, the house system is, and will continue to be, a source of community for the majority of Harvard students. Here are my more specific comments:

    1. The vast majority of Harvard students are NOT in social clubs. The article mentions that 15% of the Harvard female population is in sororities; in other words, 85% are not! Compare this to more Greek-centered schools, like Wake Forest, with almost half of its undergraduate females in sororities.

    2. The degree to which a student identifies with his/her house varies significantly depending on the House. Mather House and the Quad Houses (a neighborhood of three houses), for instance, have incredibly strong house pride. I’m guessing you only interviewed students from the houses located nearest to the Harvard T stop (Adams, Quincy, Winthrop, Eliot; sorry, guys, but you know it’s true). Each house has its own social events, including formals, happy hours, and other parties, and some houses have better events than others.

    3. Parties “can get ‘really hot and pretty gross sometimes.’” That’s your basis for saying that house parties aren’t fun?! It’s not a party until I’m really hot and pretty gross. :)

    4. Final clubs are “elite (à la the Winklevoss twins).” I see no evidence for that sweeping statement, unless you count renting The Social Network as part of your due diligence… Yes, there’s the occasional student whose last name happens to match one of the campus buildings, but they are few and far between.

    5. “The result is a tiered social system: those who have access to final clubs and those who don’t.” As mentioned above, there are tons of events outside of the final clubs. Most non-final-club students aren’t in final clubs because they don’t want to be.

    Hope that clarifies things. So be careful the next time you decide to rag on Harvard… Hell hath no fury like a Harvard woman scorned. ;)


    • the nas

      Mather Haus!!!

  • upop

    If the city bureaucracy finds out about these unpermitted private events in city parks, the consequences won’t be good.