Opinion

Opinion

Harvard's ouster of bigoted students was the right call

Posted June 6

Harvard University has decided to withdraw its admission offers for at least 10 incoming first-year students who had set up a Facebook group to share sexually explicit, racist and anti-Semitic images.

Much of the reaction has been predictable: eye-rolling laced with schadenfreude (it didn't help that the name of the group was "Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens"). But some commentators have deplored Harvard's decision as a chilling blow to the kind of expansive expression that universities were created to encourage and inspire.

Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law School who taught for three years at Harvard Law, wrote on her blog: "By ferreting out the members of this private chat group...Harvard has proven that there is an oppressive force to transgress. I hope Harvard realizes the error of its ways before it alters our understanding of the role of the university. Harvard should not teach its students to be afraid to joke in private, among people willing to joke back."

But Harvard is better off denying admission to the students than accepting them with a mere reprimand.

This isn't the first time this has occurred at the elite Ivy League school: An unofficial messaging thread for members of the class of 2020 became spackled with racist and misogynist posts and was removed from the class's official Facebook page last year. The students responsible were warned but not punished. The difference here is that the "Horny Bourgeois Teens" were not yet matriculated, and Harvard was well within its rights to disinvite them.

And the memes in question weren't merely off-color in the eye-winking way of many Internet gags. They went to truly dark and ugly places, joking about Orthodox Jews, the Holocaust and gas chambers, Mexican children and suicide, Middle Eastern children and bestiality, and many more -- liked and responded to approvingly by other members of the hundred-odd person group.

It's become common to explain meme-sharing as a trivial act of impulse, sort of like the "all I did was forward an email!" defense used by government officials or other persons in our public trust who broadcast virulently offensive content.

But the very fact that it takes so little time and effort to share, forward or like a meme means that the process often operates in the tiny period of time before higher cognitive functions kick in - the period in which researchers have determined "unconscious bias" operates.

Study after study has concluded that precognitive exposure to images of people of different races produces meaningful results in the attitudes of research subjects. According to one study, among three in four whites and Asians, microflashes of black faces are more likely to produce negative associations than white faces. Similar results have been shown to occur when people are exposed to individuals of different genders or elderly versus younger individuals.

Essentially, this work shows that there are prejudices that are baked into our society and that are invoked almost before we even know what we're doing. The primary goal of a world-class education is to expand horizons and open minds - to help students gather not just facts, but experiences that will ready them to become leaders, innovators and agents of change.

That's why diverse student bodies are critical to a first-rate education. And it's also why universities like Harvard want students who are ready, able and willing to do the hard work of overcoming the inherent biases that prevent them from embracing what they have to offer.

Privilege - the kind of toxic privilege that allows you to laugh at the marginalized, to mock tragedy and atrocity, to reinforce ugly and misguided stereotypes - is the biggest hindrance to that kind of work.

If there were a real-world screening test to identify students whose sense of privilege would prevent them from benefiting from the full sweep of Harvard's cultural and social resources, creating and actively participating in a group like "Horny Bourgeois Teens" would be it.

The rescinding of their admissions was not only justified, it was necessary: Those spots can and should go to people who will make better use of them. Why reward those poisoned by toxic privilege with more privilege?

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