Ethical College Admissions: Revoking Admissions Offers

The controversy over Kyle Kashuv leads Jim Jump to reflect on when colleges should take back an offer.

June 24, 2019
 
Kyle Kashuv

Last week Kyle Kashuv, a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a survivor of the shootings there, announced that Harvard University had rescinded his offer of admission. Kashuv had planned to take a gap year and continue his advocacy work for the right-wing group Turning Point USA before enrolling at Harvard in the fall of 2020.

Harvard rescinded Kashuv's acceptance following revelations in May on Twitter that Kashuv had used offensive racist, sexist and anti-Semitic language back in 2017. One of his high school classmates, Ariana Ali, posted a video of Kashuv and other students in an AP U.S. History review session where Kashuv typed the N-word 11 or 12 times in a row, bragging, "I'm really good at typing" and, "practice, uh, makes perfect." On the same day that video surfaced, Kashuv resigned as Turning Point USA's high-school outreach director.

Is Harvard's decision to rescind Kashuv's acceptance appropriate or an overreaction? Is this a cautionary tale for the generation that grew up addicted to cell phones and social media, a case of self-inflicted damage from sharing one's ignorance on-line? Or is it, as some conservatives have alleged, a free-speech issue where Kashuv is being punished by forces of political correctness?

Forbes columnist Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus at Ohio University, contrasts Kashuv, who apparently ranked second in his graduating class at Stoneman Douglas, with his fellow classmate-turned-activist David Hogg, who will attend Harvard this fall. Vedder suggests that Hogg was admitted despite weaker academic credentials because of his advocacy for more acceptable political views.

Vedder acknowledges that Kashuv's immaturity, lack of judgment and offensive language are cause enough for Harvard to pull his admission, but argues that Kashuv has exhibited genuine remorse for his actions. Of course, the expressions of remorse didn't come until a week after his offensive comments were made public, raising the question of whether his remorse was for the comments or for their discovery.

David Brooks devoted a New York Times column last week to Kashuv's situation. Brooks argues that there is no redemption without prior sin. He recognizes that Harvard is within its rights to pull Kashuv's acceptance, but thinks that forgiveness and a second chance would have been the better response, given Kashuv's plea that he is no longer the same person who wrote the hateful words as a 16-year-old. "It's hard to know if Kashuv has learned from his repulsive comments," Brooks writes, "but if he has, wouldn't Harvard want a kid who is intellectually rigorous and morally humble? Wouldn't it want a student who could lend a hand to all the perfect resume children who may not have committed a disgrace, but who will?"

"If he has." But isn't that the question here? Is the young person who lived through and survived a horrific school shooting the same person who wrote racial slurs on a Google Doc as a 16-year-old high school junior? Ali posted the video because she believes Kashuv is a hypocrite and a bigot who has not matured or moved beyond the offensive views or language. Kashuv has certainly maintained that he is no longer the same person, but he also mixed his contrition with a claim of moral equivalence by pointing out and criticizing Harvard's history of slavery.

This column is always interested in exploring the broader issues, and the broader issue here is under what circumstances a college or university should withdraw a student's acceptance.

First of all, it should happen only rarely. Losing an offer of admission during the summer is not just about losing the opportunity to attend a particular college or university. The timing means that the student will likely have difficulty making alternative plans for college. A college's decision to cancel a student's enrollment should be exceptional.

The decision to rescind should be based on a student's performance or behavior, not institutional interest or convenience. Two years ago, the University of California at Irvine attempted to rescind 500 offers of admission during the summer because it had over-enrolled its freshman class. Following widespread condemnation (including in this column) UC-Irvine backed off that decision a week later.

Recently, Virginia Tech announced that it has over-enrolled its freshman class for the fall by a whopping 1,000 students. Ignoring the question of how that happens from an enrollment management perspective, Virginia Tech deserves credit for its response to a situation that will create havoc for the university and the surrounding community. Virginia Tech is upholding its commitment to the students who applied and enrolled in good faith, but has adopted a policy similar to that used by airlines in an overbooking situation. VT recently reached out to 1,500 students in certain majors and offered them cash incentives of $1,000 to take a gap year and defer admission, or attend a community college and then transfer. It is too early to know how successful that plan is, but as of a week ago my sources were telling me that fewer than 100 students had accepted the offer.

The most common reason for rescinding an offer of admission is a dramatic decline in a student's academic performance, or what might be called "early-onset senioritus." An offer of admission is conditional on a student maintaining the record that led them to be accepted. A student who starts summer vacation well before graduation will find college academics even more of a culture shock.

That leaves cancellations for reasons of behavior, as in Kashuv's case. His case is not unprecedented at Harvard; two years ago, Harvard canceled the admission of ten admitted students who traded offensive and sexually-explicit memes on a private Facebook page.

When dealing with behavior cases, colleges have to balance what is best for the student involved with what is best for the community at large. Is a student who uses offensive language exhibiting teenage stupidity or attitudes that constitute a threat to the community? Do you admit only students who are without flaws, or at least whose flaws are hidden? As David Brooks argues, is there room to consider that an individual might learn and grow from mistakes?

Those questions are made more complicated in today' climate where our leaders seem determined to "Make America Hate Again." In that climate there is less reticence to express offensive viewpoints, even among small children. Where is the line between freedom of expression and sensitivity toward those different from us? Just because we can say something, should we? And because we can say something, do we have the right to expect that there will not be consequences?

I'm sorry for all that Kyle Kashuv has gone through over the past couple of years, including this most recent experience. I'm guessing that Harvard would not have admitted him had it been aware of his comments, although I wonder what would have happened had he been the one who informed Harvard and used that to make the case that he is not the same person. I believe in hope and redemption, and I hope that losing the opportunity to attend Harvard will serve as a wake-up call and a transformative experience to become the positive adult he is capable of being.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. 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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