Harvard got it wrong by rescinding the offers of the 10 freshmen who sent memes

Hear me out

Harvard recently made the controversial decision to withdraw its offers of admission to at least 10 students after finding out about several memes that these students shared on a private group chat. Its decision has made headlines, even though the university itself has yet to publicly comment on it. Maybe they’re realizing they were wrong.

Hear me out. I’m not here to argue that memes promoting racism, discriminate against minorities, or joke about child rape are OK. That’s a whole other discussion. I’m here to argue that Harvard should not be taking action on something that was shared privately. Is it it OK for Harvard to make decisions about students’ futures based on a private chat? If you’re going to make a decision about one chat, should have you have access to others? If universities can take action on private conversations, my guess is a lot more than 10 students would be dismissed. Surely Harvard has bigger, more important issues to deal with rather than going through the private messages of incoming freshmen?




Instead of taking this opportunity to spur a discussion on what is right and wrong when it comes to memes, where we draw the line ethically and morally, and what we can do going forward, Harvard has polarized the discussion and split people into two camps. These memes aren’t going to go away. There are thousands of meme groups and pages online, and countless more group chats and private conversations where these memes are shared daily, and those aren’t going to stop because 10 students had their admissions offers withdrawn.

What Harvard may have accomplished is to push these groups into ever tighter circles and alienated those who find these memes funny. It may also have started a discussion on the use of private material. We recently saw a discussion on whether former FBI Director James Comey could reveal information about private conversations with President Trump. But that involves an FBI director testifying before Congress. Not some teenagers in a Facebook group chat. So I do think Harvard made the wrong decision. Even if it considers that these memes show the students’ true characters, it’s then arguing that someone’s moral character is solid and unchangeable by their senior year of high school. Instead of taking the opportunity to use their four years at Harvard to better these students, it has decided to get rid of the weakest link. In doing so it indirectly claims some moral authority, and implies that it truly only wants the best of the best.

I, and most of the public, know little about these students’ backgrounds. What if some of them are part of a minority? How can they be discriminating against themselves? What if they’ve spent hours each week helping out at their local soup kitchen, or teaching English to underprivileged immigrants? We’ve all been quick to make up our minds because so many of us find these memes “vile” or “repulsive.” Yet in doing so, aren’t we claiming that a person’s moral character can be defined by the type of humor they like? And above all, aren’t we intruding on their privacy? Is there nothing in our own messages that could be used against us in much the same way?

In preparing this piece, we asked students across America for their responses to the Harvard memes incident. This from Kunaal Sharma, a junior at Duke, sums it up for me:

“To call these people ‘hateful’, is to completely misunderstand them. True, their participation in this subculture belies a sheltered world view and a lack of understanding of the complexity and pain of the issues which they are joking about, but they do not hold the belief that the mass murder of Jews is acceptable, or that African American people are inferior to other races, or that the rape of children is anything close to okay. They should have been more mature and known better, but it is more than a stretch to accuse them of ‘unbridled hatred’.”


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Columbia University