When Harvard’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, resigned this January in the face of a double-barreled scandal—she allegedly didn’t adequately condemn Hamas’s October attack on Israel, and then there were accusations of plagiarism in several of her old academic papers—it seemed as though the school might be suffocating on the fumes of its own progressivism.

This seemed doubly true earlier this week when, according to The Times of London, academics “tasked with creating a memorial to the slaves who helped to shape the university said it was interested only in its image.”

Even interim president Alan Garber, formerly Harvard’s provost, has acknowledged the university’s predicament. “I am the interim president,” he told Harvard Magazine on February 15, “but the problems we need to deal with are not interim problems.” Among them, he said, is the fact that students and faculty alike don’t feel able to talk freely about their beliefs, lest they face, as he put it, “dire consequences” such as getting canceled, and so they prefer just to keep quiet.

Though Harvard was founded in 1636, many people look to the university to uphold progressive ideals.

Matters of political correctness—or “wokeness,” in the vernacular of the student body—couldn’t seem to be further from the minds of Harvard’s “final clubs,” a mix of 15 private clubs for students—eight of which are all male, five of which are all female, and two of which are mixed—that date back as far as 1791, when the all-male Porcellian Club was founded. The clubs, such as the Fly Club, the Spee Club, and the A.D. Club, live in an eco-system quite apart from the more progressive corridors of Harvard.

Not only do the activities of some of the clubs, such as all-expense trips to French châteaux and clubbing in New York City, stand in stark contrast to the issues that befell Gay and confound Garber, but they run counter to what’s happening at other colleges and universities around the country. Whereas Yale’s secret societies now choose members based on merit, rank, and diversity, Harvard’s operate differently. They pick sophomores, not seniors, and the criteria, as one alumnus told me, are “geniality,” “amiability,” and “club-ability.” Not far from the standards of yesteryear—considerations like where you prepped and summered.

The activities at some of the clubs, such as all-expense trips to French châteaux and clubbing in New York City, stand in stark contrast to what’s happening at other colleges and universities around the country.

To be sure, the final clubs have changed a bit with the times, too, to become a bit more progressive. For instance, the Fly Club is said to have admitted more men of color in recent years, and the Spee Club has gone coed and had the first Black president of any final club.

A significant segment of the Harvard undergraduate population takes these clubs quite seriously. Many students spend as much time trying to gain admission to final clubs as they do to join prestigious extra-curricular publications like The Harvard Lampoon and The Harvard Crimson and theatrical societies such as Hasty Pudding. One current Harvard undergrad tells me that there is an “obsession with power” at Harvard that “fuels the school.” Then, as if to prove the point, she says, “Statistically, my peers are the most likely of any college to be president of the United States.”

Many students care as much about final clubs as they do about prestigious extra-curricular organizations such as Hasty Pudding.

A Harvard alumnus describes the appeal of the final clubs: “People want friend groups. And Harvard can be a pretty cold place … People are looking for places where they can have friends. And these are places that happened to have nice libraries and alcohol.”

Not to mention that being a member of a final club expands your professional network dramatically, which can be helpful when it comes to finding a high-powered job. Final club members have gone on to be C.E.O.s, senators, and even presidents.

At Harvard, “punching” a final club begins early in an undergrad’s sophomore year. (One Harvard alum half-jokingly said that it was called “punching” because there used to be punch to drink.) “The process is pretty crazy,” one undergrad tells me, much like rushing a fraternity. Each club holds four events in the fall: a cocktail party; an outing of some sort, such as paintballing or drinking in the central-Massachusetts woods; “date night,” when the “punches,” members, and their dates go to black-tie events (one attendee tells me, “All the girls get their hair done.... Every single one of my friends brings eight black-tie dresses for a semester”); and, for the few lucky enough to make it past the first three events, the “final dinner,” which is the last of the four tests for admission.

A student familiar with the process tells me it’s “all pretty cutthroat.”

A puncher who favors the coed Spee Club told me that last fall, some 500 people tried to join, but it allows only 40 new members each year. There are always a few undergrads that clubs desperately fight over. Last year, one of them was Aiden Kennedy, the son of independent presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. and the grandson of Bobby Kennedy and grandnephew of President John F. Kennedy, who was a member of the Spee Club. “People want him because of his last name,” says one undergrad. Aiden joined the Spee Club, too. (His brother, Conor Kennedy, also became a member of the Spee Club. He supposedly got kicked out of Harvard for plagiarizing his senior thesis but was apparently later re-admitted to the university.)

Legacies have no problem getting into the final clubs. Take Will Kissinger, grandson of Henry, for example. “He was legacy to Spee,” one Harvard undergrad tells me, “and obviously got in.” The Porcellian Club takes 15 to 20 undergrads into the club each year, and allegedly, around half are legacies. One student says that members of the Porcellian Club “are like the biggest assholes on campus,” who never let anyone into their clubhouse aside from members, wear suits around campus, and are blackballed from participating in events at other final clubs because they are seen as aloof by them. Still, students want to be members because of the connections it affords to its alumni, who include the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and the Winklevoss twins.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of the Fly Club, while his cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, was a member of the Porcellian Club.

The “old wives’ tale” at the Porcellian Club, one former member told the New York Post in 2017, is “that if you don’t make your first million by 30, they give it to you.” And money seems to be a preoccupation of many of its members, and Harvard students in general. “They’re all trying to work at Goldman Sachs,” one undergrad tells me. “Everyone wants to be a quant. Everyone wants to make a bajillion dollars.”

In between the four sanctioned events, the clubs often have “side events,” which can be used for the members to get to know the punches better and vice versa. According to one person who failed to get into the Porcellian Club, this year’s “side trip” was taken via private jet—supplied by an alumnus—to New York for a nearly 100-person dinner at the Knickerbocker Club, on Fifth Avenue, which also doesn’t allow women to be members. The following night, I’m told, there was rumored to be a multi-thousand-dollar budget for the group to go clubbing. The Porcellian Club declined to comment.

The A.D. Club, which is said to be the second-wealthiest club after the Porcellian, took a side trip to Puerto Rico. As did the Bee Club, which is said to be the snootiest women’s final club. “They’re very just like Mean Girls, out of the movie,” says one undergraduate who participated in the punching process.

The “old wives’ tale” at the Porcellian Club is that if you haven’t made a million dollars by the time you’re 30, the club just “gives you a million dollars.”

For its side trip this year, the Fly Club went to France for a weekend. They brought 30 Bee Club members to a château in Bordeaux. A caption for one of the photos on Instagram says, “Un gin and tonic s’il vous plait,” and photos show the girls wearing ball gowns.

Diversity doesn’t seem to be a priority at the Porcellian Club, or at any of the other clubs for that matter. Unsurprisingly, at a progressive school like Harvard, this bubbles up into controversy from time to time. In September 2015, two Harvard sophomores, Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz and Sam Koppelman (full disclosure: I know both men), wrote an opinion piece for The Harvard Crimson on the final clubs’ lack of diversity. “Sure, being in a final club comes with meaningful connections, close friends, and the chance to party with the Patriots,” they wrote. “But should you join a group of predominantly white and privileged when you go to school with the most diverse and influential students in the world?” They urged the clubs to admit women, among other reforms, and two have, the Spee Club and the Sab Club.

The topic of diversity at the final clubs really heated up in May 2016 when Drew Faust, then the Harvard president, said that starting with the Harvard class of 2021, the members of single-gender social organizations on campus would not be eligible to be captains of sports teams or to receive postgraduate awards such as Marshall or Rhodes Scholarships. Her decision came after a Harvard committee had studied whether the final clubs should be forced to go coed, and whether they engendered an environment ripe for sexual aggression against women. Both the committee and Faust’s decision set Porcellian alumni on edge.

When former Harvard president Drew Faust proposed penalties to anyone who belonged to a single-gender club, students protested.

Charles Storey, a member of the Harvard class of 1982 and the graduate-board president of the Porcellian, remonstrated in a letter to The Harvard Crimson, claiming it was one of the rare instances when the Porcellian went public. “Such McCarthyism is a dangerous road that would be a blow to academic freedom, the spirit of tolerance, and the long tradition of free association on campus,” he wrote. Storey went on to remark that the Porcellian believes it “is being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault.” Storey, the founder of Harpoon Brewery, subsequently apologized twice for his letter and then stepped down as the club’s alumni president.

In June 2020, the university abandoned its effort to try to reshape the final clubs. “It was a messy controversy,” says one outside observer. “And I bet it probably contributed to [Faust] stepping down as president of Harvard.”

Many students don’t like the social scene at Harvard one bit, feeling it is dominated by the final clubs. “It’s very stressful,” a source tells me. “Everybody just cries for weeks when they don’t get into final clubs. I mean, I cried for, like, two weeks. Most of my friends still aren’t over it. It’s such an ego bruise.”

Why are Harvard undergrads so keen to compete for these positions, often to the point of neglecting their studies? “Harvard kids love a challenge,” says a student. “They also love elitism. So if you’re told, like, ‘Oh, this final-club thing is like a popularity contest,’ they’re like, ‘I want to win that, right?’”

The real question, though, is if they do end up winning this battle, is it all just downhill from there?

William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of such best-selling books as The Last Tycoons, House of Cards, and The Price of Silence. He is a founding partner of Puck. His latest book, Power Failure, is out now