Now, for 10 students who were admitted but had their acceptances rescinded recently, it's also the missed opportunity of a lifetime.
The reason: They were allegedly caught posting "sexually explicit memes and messages," some of which "targeted minority groups," in a private Facebook group for admitted Harvard students, according to The Harvard Crimson.
Here's what happened, plus why Harvard doesn't really deserve any accolades for its actions (even if it made the right call), and the lessons for every young person in America.
Yeah, this looks really bad
Where to begin with this story? Let's start with the Facebook group, which was called, "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens."
Immature and stupid at the very least--possibly much worse.
The Harvard Crimson, which broke the story, either was granted access to the group or at least saw screenshots. Among the memes and comments the Crimson says these students shared:
- Comments suggesting that "abusing children was sexually arousing."
- Punch lines "directed at specific ethnic or racial groups."
- A meme referring to "the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child [as] 'piñata time.'"
- "memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children."
Even accounting for the fact that these are fairly young kids--17, 18, and 19 years old--and that young kids sometimes do stupid things, it's hard to have much sympathy for them. (I'm assuming, of course, that The Crimson has accurately described the comments and memes, and that they sound as bad in context as they do here.)
Has Harvard learned anything?
Still, let's not be too quick to pat Harvard on the back for its response. Because there a few other factors to consider. They don't exonerate the students, but they also don't make Harvard look heroic.
Perhaps most important, this is actually the second year in a row that admitted Harvard students created private chat groups on Facebook, "exchanged offensive messages online," in the words of the Crimson, and were caught.
Maybe Harvard just isn't as good at choosing the nation's most promising future leaders as it would like to think. Last year, the college turned a blind eye to the behavior, issuing a statement saying the college was "disappointed to see a conversation that included graphics with offensive themes," but not disciplining any of the students involved.
It's probably reasonable to assume that this year's offenses were worse, but we don't know for sure--again, since The Crimson revealed the sanction the students are facing but didn't actually reveal the extent of their crimes.
The death penalty
Second, while neither The Crimson nor Harvard has revealed how it first learned of the students' comments, it seems that they were made in what the students thought was a private group. As vile as the alleged comments are, is the academic death penalty really the appropriate sanction for comments that these students made in private?
It's a harsh sanction, to be sure. It's not just a matter of no longer attending Harvard, but also of having to explain to any other college that they had their offers of admission rescinded under these circumstances. You might well assume these students think their lives are over almost before they've started.
They're not, of course, but there's no sugarcoating the fact that they're going to miss out on an incredible opportunity that lots of people would kill to have had.
Let's also not less this pass without noting a certain irony: These students were using a social network created by a Harvard dropout, who himself wound up before the Harvard disciplinary board before ditching Cambridge for Silicon Valley.
We all know better
According to The Crimson, other members of the incoming class of 2021 generally support the idea of rescinding these students' offers of admission--although one of the students quoted said she "had mixed feelings," and another said he hadn't actually seen any of the posts "firsthand."
Still, we can imagine. And we all know the lessons to take from this. First, don't say racist, ugly, sexist things. Second, especially don't say stuff like that on the Internet--where private almost never actually means private.
As for these almost-Harvard students?
Maybe we should view their actions in the context of a world in which our president was caught on videotape joking about sexual assault and was elected anyway, or in which Bill Maher suffered no repercussions at all after using the N-word slur recently on his HBO show.
Maybe these students really are racist, sexist, misogynistic jerks--or maybe they just weren't thinking at all. Either way, they'll have a lot more time to think now--probably an whole academic year, at least--until they find some other, less-prestigious college that might be willing to consider them.