Earlier this semester, members of Lambda conducted a comprehensive review of the organization’s policies and drafted amendments to its constitution and bylaws. Thirty-eight measures were approved in all, with one in particular igniting controversy: a requirement that election results be invalid if a single racial or gender group constitute two-thirds majority or more of the Board.
According to Lambda’s co-presidents, Lior Anafi and Sean Cuddihy—who wish to clarify that they speak as individuals, and do not represent any official position of Lambda—technical issues with the amendment and “opposition to its core mechanism” became apparent during the final stages of the review process.
1L Kristen Bokhan, a current Lambda officer and candidate for co-president next year, shared some of her concerns with the Record. Bokhan worried that the provision “delegitimizes the democratic nature of elections, taking away members’ ability to vote for the candidates of their choice by threatening board dissolution,” and that forcing candidates to step down to meet quotas pushes individuals away from the organization. Bokhan also feared that the initial proposal placed unfair pressure on women and minorities, who may also be involved in other affinity organizations, to lead Lambda; and that a diversity policy that only focuses on race and gender ignores other ways members contribute to the organization’s diversity.
To resolve concerns, the Board held further discussions, drafted alternatives, and opened a second round of voting to determine “what structures Lambda would use to ensure maximal inclusion and participation in its governance,” according to Cuddihy. Bokhan said that members on both sides of the issue met during this phase to find common ground and keep conversations positive. The second vote, however, was cut short when the Dean of Students Office, after consulting Harvard’s Office of General Counsel, informed the Board that Lambda would lose its status as a registered student organization if the amendment remained in place.
“The goal of the proposed bylaw—promoting diversity in the leadership of a student organization—was commendable, but ironically the text of the bylaw appeared to violate the Law School’s non-discrimination policy,” Dean Cosgrove said. “I consulted with University counsel about the school’s obligations under Title IV, and confirmed that HLS would not be able to continue to grant official status to a student group that enacted a bylaw worded the way this one was. I notified the leaders of Lambda, and told them I look forward to working with them to search for other ways to foster more diversity without violating our obligations under Title IV.”
In response, fifteen of seventeen Board members voted to remove to the provision in its entirety (with the other two abstaining), putting the issue on hold until after Lambda’s March elections. Cuddihy attributed the decision to prevent “protracting an already lengthy and contentious process until the last moment by drafting yet more alternative policies, developing and conducting yet more polls, and running the risk of prompting yet more threats to our existence as an organization.”
Members of the HLS community have voiced disapproval at Dean Cosgrove’s determination and Lambda’s decision to succumb to the pressure exerted by the Administration. A recent post on Socratic Shortcomings entitled, “A Few White Male Students and the Administration Bully Lambda into Repealing its Diversity Bylaw,” said, “while students try to dismantle systems of oppression, our administration props them up and threatens student organizations that distress those in power.” Bokhan refutes this claim.
“My largest issue with the Socratic Shortcomings post is that it turned a conversation that had tried to remain positive despite its tense moments, into a very negative “us v. them” mentality,” Bokhan said. “When I read the SS posts, I think they came from a place of hurt, anger, and frustration. I hope whoever wrote those posts knows that those of us in favor of a compromise proposal or opposed to the bylaw also feel that hurt, anger, and frustration. I’m not sure if people who read those posts are supposed to think I/we are racist and sexist, or puppets to white male hysteria. Whatever people are going to think, one thing is clear to me: we are neither.”
The post also criticized the Board and Administration for failing to consider proposed alternatives, like the possibility of keeping only the gender prong of the amendment. Cuddihy responded that the idea was raised to all Board members through email, but ultimately not pursued.
“We did not want to risk dissolution of the organization without explicit organization-wide authorization to do so, and we felt that there would still be opportunities to continue the discussion (of gender as well as racial inclusivity initiatives) after the election,” Cuddihy said.
Lambda’s failed bylaw likely will not be the end of initiatives to redress racial and gender disparity in leadership roles at HLS. Cuddihy invites leaders to search for solutions.
“For the sake of our members who still wish to explore alternatives to the now-repealed bylaw, but are anxious about endangering everything else for which our organization stands in the process, we urge the HLS administration to work with our successors and other affinity group leaders to develop far less high-stakes methods for seeking advisory opinions and other forms of guidance.”