Harvard College rescinded admissions offers to at least ten anointed members of the Class of 2021 after it discovered that the prospective students traded sexually explicit memes and messages in a private Facebook group chat. Some of the memes apparently mocked and denigrated minority groups.
The admitted students had formed the messaging group, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,”on Facebook in late December, 2016.
The members of the group sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, among other topis. Screenshots captured and obtained by the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, revealed that some messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines targeting ethnic or racial groups, like one that called hanging a Mexican child “piñata time.”
Harvard administrators were alerted to the existence and contents of the chat and sent the students an e-mail that read,
“The Admissions Committee was disappointed to learn that several students in a private group chat for the Class of 2021 were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics As we understand you were among the members contributing such material to this chat, we are asking that you submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the Admissions Committee. It is unfortunate that I have to reach out about this situation.”
A week later, at least ten members of the meme chat group were sent letters from Harvard announcing that their admission offers were no longer valid, and that the decision was final.
“As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Day…
Was Harvard’s action fair, reasonable and proportionate?
Let me begin by admitting a bias: I think my alma mater has lost its ethics bearings under the benighted leadership of president Drew Faust. The segregated 2017 graduation ceremony was just the most recent example; Faust and her staff have also punished male students for participating in off-campus male-only residence clubs, or what other schools call “fraternities,” and a male sports team for making sexist comments in a document circulated among team members.
As for this episode, it is fair to say that if the admissions office had received these memes before deciding to admit the students, they wouldn’t have been accepted at all. So what? I doubt any Harvard admittee hasn’t engaged in conduct or said things in private that would poison his or her case for being accepted to the school. That’s why students try to make themselves look good on their applications.
This issue is old stuff on Ethics Alarms. My position here is no different than it is when high school students are punished in school for Facebook posts and social media chats they have from their bedrooms. This is Big Brotherism, and totalitarian in style and substance. Harvard has an interest in a student’s public behavior, or any embarrassing conduct that comes to light and reflects poorly on Harvard. Seeking out private conversations and punishing the participants for their content, however, is draconian and even cruel. Call the students, express concern, explain why what they are doing is wrong, warn them, make them wear a scarlet J for jerk at orientation, but kick them out of the class? This is wildly disproportionate for the offense. Of course the students lack maturity: they are 17 or 18 years old! As for “moral character,” that’s part of what Harvard is supposed to teach.
Based on this decisions and some other of late, I doubt the school is qualified to do that.