Was Harvard Correct to Revoke Admissions Offers Over Offensive Posts?

Many experts on admissions and campus race relations say the university did the right thing.

June 12, 2017

The talk of the admissions world in the last week has been Harvard University's decision to revoke admissions offers to 10 students who participated in a highly offensive Facebook group called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." The group included jokes about abusing children and the Holocaust, and insulting remarks about members of various racial and ethnic groups.

Admissions Insider reached out to experts on admissions and campus race relations for their reactions -- and found strong backing for Harvard's actions. And high school students should consider themselves warned that Harvard isn't the only university that considers such a decision appropriate.

Here is what the experts said:

Shaun R. Harper, professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center:

The message is clear: we don’t want students with these views poisoning our community. This seemingly praiseworthy stance raises two questions for me.

First, what about Harvard students who hold these and other horrifying views, but were not reckless enough to convey them in a Facebook group? Surely, these are not the only 10 students the university admitted who have deeply problematic perspectives. High school grades, solid standardized test performances, compelling recommendation letters, and perfectly crafted essays reveal certain aspects of who students are, and to a lesser extent, how and what they think.

But rarely are these and other information sources used to help institutions determine what strategic educational actions are necessary to address through curriculum and campus programs the segregated residential and K-12 schooling contexts from which most students come, or the disturbingly racist, sexist, transphobic, Islamophobic, and otherwise bigoted ways that too many have been socialized to think and behave.

My second question is this: if not Harvard, who will boldly educate and reform our most dangerously thinking Americans? Colleges and universities cannot reject them all, nor should they. Ours should be places of enlightenment and contexts in which ideas are contested, debated, and hopefully the worst of them revised. Harvard and every other place that calls itself an institution of higher learning must accept the enormously important social responsibility of educating our nation’s most and least enlightened people, including racists. Truth is, some will inevitably end up in our classrooms. But too few who could actually benefit from learning with us will be afforded opportunities to do so. In this way, our exclusive admissions practices deny our country the corrective learning opportunities so many of its citizens need.

Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College:

At Pomona, offers of admission are made with the provision that admitted students maintain their strong record of academic achievement and personal integrity.  We select students into the class who we believe can be academically successful and who can strengthen the Pomona community, and we believe that living life with personal integrity is the foundation for community success here. If new information surfaces about an admitted student after acceptance, whether in the form of atypical poor academic performance or issues of character, we have an obligation to reassess our admission decision.

In the Harvard case, had any of those students shared that they participated in such activities prior to their admission, my guess is none would have been offered admission.

Bob Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School, a public high school in Massachusetts:

I commend Harvard for taking a stand and holding students accountable for their actions. A conditional acceptance is just that and student must realize that their words and actions after the acceptance are just as important as before. I tell my students all the time to watch what they put on social media and that people (like college admission officials) do pay attention.  While I feel bad that these students have missed out on an opportunity and learned a hard lesson, I hope it sends a message to others to be mindful of what they post on social media.

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, professor of education at Bowling Green State University:

If higher education institutions truly are to be places where equity and justice are prioritized above appeasement, then we must see more universities following Harvard's example here. By rescinding the admission of these 10 students, Harvard has made clear that racism, misogyny, sexual predation, and other forms of violence that were the subject of these memes are neither funny nor appropriate among its students. Such behavior defies its values and its students code of conduct. Although some would point to their right to free speech, they do not have the right to be free from the consequences of their speech nor do they have the right to admission to a particular institution.

What I hope is that Harvard responds with the same level of consequence to students who have completed their matriculation to the college and found responsible for such reprehensible behavior. This action is not sufficient evidence to declare Harvard to be anti-racist or anti-misogynist. It must be followed with a broad and consistent critique and transformation of its policies, practices, and all spaces across campus.

This is a good response, but it is just one response. How is this part of a broad institutional effort to forward equity and justice? Moreover, to be very clear, it is problematic to say that these students had their offers of admission to Harvard rescinded because they were being "offensive." Offense is not the issue here. What is at issue is behavior that targeted those who were vulnerable for abuse, mockery, and dehumanization. That is not a matter of personal offense or political correctness, as critics are likely to respond.

Others would argue that Harvard has a responsibility to educate those students to teach them to be better and recognize why their actions were wrong. I disagree. Losing their admission to Harvard is itself an education about the relationship between one's behavior and consequences for one's behavior. A relationship with which these students may have had too little prior experience. We cannot continue to sacrifice the psychological and physical safety of minoritized students for the perceived benefits of these few.

Yariv Alpher, executive director of research, Kaplan Test Prep, which conducts surveys on admissions' officers use of applicants social media accounts:

Harvard, like many universities, works hard to build a community of students and scholars. A community that is intellectually rigorous and culturally open. A community that is both physically safe (an issue that has plagued many campuses in recent years) and safe for people of different backgrounds and views. What we saw this week was a community rejecting certain behaviors that did not meet these standards. The Harvard Crimson [which first reported on the revoked admissions offers] is a student newspaper and it was students who shared screenshots of the offensive memes.

It was the community -- not just Harvard administrators -- that stood up to these offenses. Students and parents should appreciate colleges as communities. When they apply to a college they are saying "I want to be part of this community." We know from our own research that admissions officers have cited racist or offensive online posts as things that have negatively impacted prospective students’ admissions chances. And from the reports we’ve seen, Harvard students largely support the administration’s actions, making the distinction between “free speech” and “hate speech.”  
The Harvard situation should underscore to college applicants that the application process doesn’t end after you've accepted an admissions offer. Administrators and college students remain deeply protective of their school’s brand and are willing to take measures to defend it. And in an age of social media, we caution students that their social footprint is their own personal brand, and the hunt for likes and shares should not be pursued at the expense of damaging that brand. Think before you post, as what you share may have unintended consequences. You don’t have to share everything.

Louis Hirsh, a private admissions consultant who formerly was director of admissions at the University of Delaware:

So long as their letters of admission alert students to this possibility, colleges have the right to rescind their offers of admission when they come upon credible information that reflects poorly on a student’s character, just as they have the right to rescind when they receive a final transcript that shows a steep decline in a student’s final grades.

I’m not persuaded by arguments that say that because the bad conduct occurred in a private social media group or because it occurred before the students matriculated, then colleges must ignore it. The larger message is that bad conduct has consequences. We all have a right to free speech, but others (including college admission committees) also have the right to assess our personal character based on the things we say and publish.

But you ask, “were they correct to revoke?” That’s a tougher question to answer. When we work in education, our instinct is to try to educate students, rather than punish them. But perhaps Harvard tried that when they reached out to those students and were unsatisfied with the answers they received. Not having seen the students’ posts, Harvard’s communications with the students, and the students’ responses, I’ll suspend judgment on the students and on Harvard.


Back to Top