Earlier this week it was announced that ten prospective Harvard students had their acceptances revoked after the school discovered they had participated in setting up and maintaining an off-color Facebook group. The announcement has sparked a discussion about how much effect, if any, a student’s activities outside of school should have on their academic careers.
Now let’s be clear: “off-color” is a pretty tame descriptor of the subject matter of the private Facebook group. Called (at one point) “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” the group focused on sharing memes, or visual jokes, about things like sexual assault, race, and abuse.
But it’s also worth noting that the group was set to be private. And none of the memes has actually been released to the public, so their content is all coming to us via hearsay.
The situation started like this: 100 members of Harvard’s incoming freshman class got in touch via the official Class of 2021 Facebook group. Together, they created an offshoot, private group focused on sharing these memes.
According to Harvard’s student publication The Crimson, Harvard administrators were made aware of the private group in mid-April, at which point they contacted the students who were involved and requested copies of every picture posted to the group. The students were told not to attend Visitas, Harvard’s annual weekend of programming for incoming freshmen. A week later, ten students who were members of the meme group were informed that their admission to the school had been revoked.
“On the one hand, I think people can post whatever they want because they have the right to do that,” Cassandra Luca, an incoming freshman who was not part of the group, told The Crimson. “I don’t think the school should have gone in and rescinded some offers because it wasn’t Harvard-affiliated, it was people doing stupid stuff.”
On the whole, however, the decision was met with approval by other students.
Legally, of course, Harvard is under no obligation to respect First Amendment rights. As a private institution, they can admit—or not admit—whomever they want. In fact, they even say so on their official Facebook page, noting that they reserve the right to withdraw admission if a student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
But inappropriate chatter on the Internet is hardly the same as illegal activity—or even online bullying. The idea that an institution would choose to police its students’ activities online—including those that occur completely outside the realm of the school itself—goes a bit beyond the pale, to say the least. Who hasn’t said or done something stupid online, particularly as a teenager? And if a university is so concerned about being the arbitrator of morality for its incoming class, why not take this as a learning opportunity about the intersection of free speech, privacy, and cultural insensitivity, rather than revoking students’ access to higher education?
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Harvard has had to deal with this sort of situation. Last year, students who were part of the Facebook page for the Class of 2020 also started a private group, this time on the messaging app GroupMe, where similarly inappropriate jokes flew fast and free. In that instance, however, Harvard made no effort to police the content or deliver any sort of consequence to those involved. According to then-interim Dean of Student Life Thomas Dingman, those involved were not disciplined because they were “not matriculated students at this point.”
Which begs the question: Do “honesty, maturity, or moral behavior” only matter once money has changed hands?
There’s no denying that the Internet is a fact of modern life, particularly for young people. And not everyone has a clear understanding that what you say and do online can and will affect other aspects of your life, particularly your professional life. But an institution strategically washing their hands of students because of something (admittedly stupid and thoughtless) that they did on their own free time represents a missed opportunity for real, meaningful engagement on difficult issues. It’s a somewhat cowardly approach to what could have been a truly useful learning opportunity. And isn’t that what higher education is supposed to be all about?