If ever there was a case for affirmative action, it was Gina Grant's.
By now, the story is familiar to everyone in the Boston area. Grant's father died of cancer in 1987. After killing her abusive, alcoholic mother in Lexington, South Carolina, Grant, a 19-year-old senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, pled no contest to manslaughter and spent six long months in a juvenile detention center.
South Carolina Judge Marc Westbrook, who presided over the trial and sentencing, then allowed the orphaned 14-year-old to relocate to Cambridge, where her aunt and uncle lived. After all she had endured, Grant became a popular straight-A student at Rindge, captaining the tennis team and tutoring underprivileged children. Earlier in the academic year, she applied to Harvard and was admitted. That should have been the end of a wonderful, beat-the-odds story.
"This is a very bright and talented young woman," Judge Westbrook told the Globe this week, putting the issue in perspective. "But every time her life started to take off and go in the right direction, somebody was throwing a roadblock at her."
Over spring break, Harvard became the latest victimizer of Gina Grant. The Faculty's standing committee on admissions and financial aid--in a gutless move--decided to rescind Grant's early admission.
"The amazing thing is that here in the South we always view Harvard as the open, intellectual-like institution," Judge Westbrook said. "A lot of us here are frankly shocked" by the decision.
But the reality of Harvard is very different from the image. This is a University that consistently puts its own reputation above doing the right thing.
In this case, Harvard's institutional obsession with protecting its reputation may backfire. With the University refusing to provide any further information, this story makes Harvard look equal parts elitist and heartless. Consider:
* Grant would not be, as some students around campus have worried, a danger to classmates and roommates. In a skillfully reported story by The Crimson's Sewell Chan, Dr. Harold C. Morgan, who examined Grant in South Carolina, indicated that her extraordinarily violent act was the result not of any mental instability but of living in a stressful, abusive household. Cambridge Rindge and Latin has also made it clear that Grant does not pose a danger to other students.
* In a cryptically-worded statement, Harvard suggested that Grant had somehow lied on her application by not disclosing her past. But both juvenile justice specialists and the man who sentenced her--Judge Westbrook--said Grant had every right not to disclose the crime. The student herself said in a statement: "I would like to think that the promise of the juvenile justice system--a fresh start--would be upheld by institutions such as the universities to which I have applied."
* With a straight face, the same Harvard statement said that Grant engaged in behavior "that brings into question honesty, maturity or moral character." Huh? Where, exactly, does Harvard get off questioning the "moral character" of Grant when the very judge who sentenced her has nothing but good things to say about her?
It seems to me that any 19-year-old who has overcome the odds Grant faced has more "moral character" and "maturity" than any of the deans who passed judgment on her application. Grant will always suffer from her mother's murder. That should be Grant's private suffering, not Harvard's moral cause.
Now that the Grant decision has become public, Harvard has a duty to explain itself fully. If there is some further explanation (rumors abounded yesterday that Grant had lied on some other part of her application), the Harvard and local communities should hear it.
Absent some new information, President Neil L. Rudenstine should immediately move to overrule the standing committee's decision and order that Gina Grant be granted admission to Harvard College.
"If she's anything like the girl I know, she deserves admission," Judge Westbrook told the Globe. "There's no question about it."
Joe Mathews' column appears on alternate Mondays.