Two years ago, Harvard University revoked 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. Harvard’s actions set off a debate over whether admissions officers should pay attention to what students write on social media (some do) and make admissions decisions based on what they find (some do).
This month, Harvard revoked another admission offer over racist statements made on social media two years ago by a recently admitted student. In this case, the student is well-known — Kyle Kashuv, one of the survivors of the 2018 murders at the Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida. Some of those survivors have become nationally known activists for gun control. Kashuv has become famous for a different reason. He is a conservative, pro-gun, pro-Trump activist — and he argues that his political views represent another way to prevent tragedies of the type he and his classmates experienced.
Harvard’s decision, however, is apparently based not on his activism, but on Kashuv’s writings on social media when he was 16. In a series of tweets Monday, he admitted that he used inflammatory, racist language. While he didn’t specify, screen shots have circulated of exchanges in which he repeatedly used the N-word slur. His racist comments came before the shooting at his high school, before he became a media figure. And he has said that the shootings changed him and made him more mature.
In Monday’s thread on Twitter, Kashuv noted that he has apologized for what he wrote earlier. “We were 16-year-olds making idiotic comments, using callous and inflammatory language in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible,” he wrote. “I’m embarrassed by it, but I want to be clear that the comments I made are not indicative of who I am or who I’ve become in the years since.”
Kashuv tweeted that after he posted this apology, “My peers used the opportunity to attack me, and my life was once again reduced to a headline.”
Harvard then started asking questions and eventually rescinded his offer of admission.
While Harvard did not confirm its actions with regard to Kashuv, he posted various communications he received from the university online, including the letter revoking admission.
In that letter, William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, wrote that he appreciated Kashuv’s “candor and expressions of regret” for his past comments, but also said that Harvard “takes seriously” the “qualities of maturity” and of “character” of those it admits. The university, Fitzsimmons added, was revoking the admissions offer.
Kashuv tried to appeal for a meeting to urge Harvard to reconsider and was turned down. He noted in his tweets that Harvard’s decision to rescind his offer of admission came after he turned down other admissions offers that had scholarships attached.
He went on to criticize the university’s decision. “Harvard deciding that someone can’t grow, especially after a life-altering event like the shooting, is deeply concerning. If any institution should understand growth, it’s Harvard, which is looked to as the pinnacle of higher education despite its checkered past,” he wrote.
Added Kashuv, “Throughout its history, Harvard’s faculty has included slave owners, segregationists, bigots and anti-Semites. If Harvard is suggesting that growth isn’t possible and that our past defines our future, then Harvard is an inherently racist institution. But I don’t believe that. I believe that institutions and people can grow. I’ve said that repeatedly.”
While Harvard declined to comment on Kashuv, the university has in the past indicated circumstances in which it may revoke admissions offers it has made. These include situations when an admitted student fails to graduate from high school, shows a significant drop in academic performance between the point of admission and enrollment or submits falsehoods in admissions materials, and actions that raise questions about maturity or character.
Kashuv’s tweets prompted an outpouring of commentary, much if it sympathetic to him.
In the libertarian magazine Reason, Robby Soave wrote, “This decision is troubling. For one thing, it represents a major victory for the online mobs of cancel culture. One way to discourage Twitter trolls from dredging up old dirt on their enemies would be to ignore them. By giving the bullies exactly what they wanted, Harvard has only emboldened them.”
Soave added, “Harvard’s decision here is also an endorsement of the position that people should be shamed and punished for their worst mistakes as kids. But moving forward, as technology gives everyone the ability to record every moment of our lives, this will be an untenable position — all embarrassing moments will be preserved forever, available for relitigation. This is excessively punitive and counterproductive to the healthy socialization of young people. Kids are not perfect: they must be given the opportunity to fail, and to learn and grow from their errors.”
Many critics on social media said that Harvard was acting against the interests of free speech by punishing someone for something he had said. Similar criticisms were made when Harvard rescinded admissions offers two years ago. But at that time, many others defended Harvard, noting that those admitted to Harvard are told that there are circumstances in which admissions offers may be revoked.
A Washington Post editorial at that time said, “It would be a mistake, though, to conflate the recent events at Harvard with any kind of attack on free speech. What happened at Harvard is simply this: misguided young people with an outsize sense of entitlement have been required to suffer the consequences — about which they had received sufficient warning — for ugly and inappropriate behavior. Harvard was right to insist that those who are granted the privilege of attending the private institution adhere to its standards.”
The editorial added that those students and others remain free to share whatever commentary they want on social media.
“The students still have the right to post whatever garbage they like, but it is also Harvard’s right — indeed, its obligation to its mission of developing leaders — to exercise judgment in deciding who will be admitted to its educational community,” the editorial said. “Harvard gave these young people a needed lesson in civility, honor and personal responsibility. Let’s hope they put it to good use — and that others are paying attention.”