Ethical College Admissions: Harvard's Revoked Acceptances

Jim Jump considers the issues raised by the university taking back offers over bigoted posts on social media.

June 26, 2017
 

It has been said that when Harvard University itches, everyone else in higher education scratches. 

Of course, Harvard rarely itches. That may be partly due to the fact that one of the classic anti-itch remedies, Gold Bond Powder, was apparently invented by members of the Rhode Island State Medical Association in the 1880s and then manufactured throughout most of the 20th century by a company in New Bedford, Massachusetts. There’s bound to be a Harvard connection in there somewhere.

 

The news that Harvard recently rescinded offers of admission to 10 newly enrolled freshmen may test the figurative truth of that assertion.  It certainly got the attention of the public.  On the morning that the story came out, I was e-mailed six different articles about the situation within a two-hour span by colleagues or parents.

According to The Harvard Crimson, the acceptances were revoked for comments the students had made as part of a private Facebook group with the catchy name, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” a spinoff of the official Harvard Class of 2021 Facebook group. Many colleges use social media groups to help incoming students bond with their future classmates and solidify their commitment to the institution, thereby lessening enrollment “melt” and improving yield. (Harvard, where 84 percent of accepted students enrolled this year, may be the one place that has no concerns about yield.)

In this case a small group of self-identified “horny bourgeois teens,” smart enough to be admitted to Harvard and yet not wise enough to know that they are not as funny as they think they are, began sharing memes and other images related to sexual assault, ethnic or racial groups, and the death of children. The Crimson reported that the offensive messages included commentary about abuse of children as sexually arousing and a reference to hypothetically hanging a Mexican child as “piñata time.”

This case raises the kinds of questions this column likes to pose (and rarely answers).

Is this a watershed moment for college admission? That’s the big question. Up to now my sense has been that it is relatively rare for admission officers to check out students on social media -- they don’t have the time during application-reading season. Coaches and scholarship programs are more likely to search social media because of the money being invested in students. A recent Admissions Insider article reported that a Kaplan Test Prep survey of 350 admission officers indicated that one-third of them check applicants’ digital footprints. In the wake of the Harvard case, is attention to social media likely to grow?

But is an applicant’s social media presence fair game for admissions offices? There is certainly an argument to be made that any information about a student is relevant, especially in a hyper-selective admissions environment. But colleges have an obligation to be transparent about what information they deem important in evaluating applicants, and that is normally done through the questions they ask on the application. If social media posts are going to become part of the admission process, then colleges should state so clearly on the application and ask the student to provide access to his or her accounts.

There is also a difference between searching social media and dealing with offensive information when it is brought to a college’s attention. I don’t drive around on weekend nights looking for examples of drinking or disciplinary offenses by my students, but if bad behavior is brought to my attention I will deal with it.

Is this another skirmish in the ongoing battle on college campuses across the country between free speech and what some have dubbed “political correctness”? Are the students in question being punished for exercising their rights of free speech?

In this instance no one prevented the students from exercising their right of free speech. But free speech isn’t free of consequences. As a private institution Harvard is within its rights to decide who gets to join the club, and unfortunately bigots aren’t an underrepresented population in our society. Harvard and other institutions are allowed to cancel the enrollment of students who express views offensive to the university community. Whether this case is offensive enough is the question.

I can’t answer that, because I don’t know the steps that Harvard undertook with the students once the offensive memes became public. Were the students involved hateful or merely stupid? Did they show remorse for their behavior, or just regret that they might lose their place in the Harvard student body? 

Or were they victims of bad timing? Apparently Harvard chose not to deal with a similar situation a year ago, concluding that the students then were not matriculated. In the succeeding year, tensions on campuses across the country have heightened, and at Harvard and several other prominent universities there have been highly-publicized instances of athletic teams caught sharing racist and sexist messages in private forums. I always tell students that the impact of disciplinary or honor offenses can be circumstantial. A foolish case of minor cheating may become a major impediment to admission at an institution where there has just been a cheating scandal on campus.

The other issue is whether the students’ behavior in this case warrants revoking their admission. Cancelling admission at this point in the year leaves the affected students without options. It certainly sends a message that certain kinds of behavior will not be tolerated. But does this case call for punishment or does it call for education? Are the students capable of rehabilitation, and is there a way to do that within a Harvard community that is built around selectivity? 

The ultimate, longterm question is how the social media generation will be impacted by their social media histories and their addiction to social media. Those of us who are older can rest with the knowledge that our youthful mistakes and stupid comments were unrecorded.  In a generation where every mundane activity and every opinion are cause for a selfie or a tweet, there is a public record of an individual’s life ready to be Googled. How many of today’s students will lose job opportunities because of social media indiscretions, and how long until a political figure more serious than Anthony Weiner is betrayed by his or her own words or images?

If only Gold Bond could develop a powder or crèam for those itching to share their every thought on social media.  

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach, and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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