An 82-Year-Old Mistake

Harvard should grant honorary diplomas to persecuted gay students

In late May of 1920, a secret court was created by Harvard’s president to investigate and discipline homosexual students and those who associated with them.

The group of five Harvard administrators, created to investigate the suicide of Cyril B. Wilcox, Class of 1922, was called “The Court.” The ad hoc tribunal spent the next two weeks investigating students from the College and some graduate schools—essentially prosecuting them for homosexuality.

By early June, the court expelled seven college students and told them not only to leave campus, but Cambridge as well. Three other University-affiliated men were deemed “guilty” by the court. Two were expelled from their graduate school programs, and all were blacklisted by the University’s employment office.

While three of the college students—those who had only associated with homosexuals—were allowed to return to Harvard to complete their undergraduate degrees, others were not. One committed suicide soon after his expulsion.

Such blatant homophobia and discrimination by Harvard, even in 1920, is deplorable. The existence of such a court and the prosecution of students on the basis of sexual orientation is appalling. The events that transpired in the 1920s are not excusable because the atmosphere at Harvard and in society was less understanding at the time; they should not have happened then, and they should not happen anywhere today.

In a statement to The Crimson, University President Lawrence H. Summers said: “These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind...I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago.”

While it is encouraging that Summers expressed Harvard’s regret, the University should offer a more full apology by granting posthumous honorary diplomas to the students who were not allowed to complete earning their Harvard degrees. In many cases, these students could not complete their schooling elsewhere because of the University’s blacklist.

The University still refuses to release the names of the students, making it difficult to grant them diplomas. But this position ignores the crucial issue—that the students in 1920 had done no wrong and that they were victims of a witch-hunt. By not revealing the students’ names, the University implies that they were accused of some legitimate transgression; nothing could be further from the truth.

The University can never compensate these students for their cruel persecution. Granting the students honorary diplomas is the best way Harvard can make amends today for one of the darkest moments in its history.