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Harvard is Right About Grant

GUEST COMMENTARY

By Lee A. Daniels

Should Gina Grant be a Harvard student? Was Harvard justified in rescinding its early-action offer to her in the first place?

That the answer to both questions is yes is not a contradiction. Rather, it confirms the significance of the principles at the heart of this case. These principles cannot be ignored out of compassion for Gina Grant. Nor should Harvard retreat from asserting them simply because some people want to willfully misread the issue so that they can bait Harvard for being elitist.

There is no doubt that much remains to be done on the diversity front here. But there is also no doubt that there are few other institutions in the metropolitan area whose efforts to be inclusive can match what one can see of the Harvard undergraduate population every day by strolling through Harvard Yard. We need pay no attention to tiny piping of the sanctimonious.

Indeed, it is the process by which those students became Harvard students that both makes clear the institutional safeguards that Harvard has rightly declared are inviolate and offers the only way that Harvard can recommit itself to Gina Grant.

Regardless of who Gina Grant has shown herself to be, Harvard was right in rescinding its early-action invitation to her for three specific reasons.

First, Harvard has rightly declared that it will enforce in the strongest terms the principle that those who apply to Harvard will not be allowed to gain admission by lying--either by lies of commission or lies of omission. If Gina Grant is allowed to waive that rule for herself this time because of the extreme circumstances of her past, as some propose, how many applicants for admission will feel justified in waiving it for themselves next year, and the year after, and the year after that?

Does anyone think that the same dispensation to no tell Harvard of one's involvement in "circumstances of extremity" could not be sought for some applicant, or several applicants, every year? Are we to declare that, when the circumstances are extreme, there's no penalty for dissembling when applying to membership in this community, that telling the truth is merely a matter of individual choice, not moral obligation? Or is that rule to apply only for straight A students with wonderful personal qualities?

Secondly, Harvard needed to reiterate the fact that this is not an open admissions college. The Admissions Committee is not obligated to accept any individual students, no matter how wonderful he or she is, no matter how many 800s he or she has scored on the college boards, no matter how high he or she stands in the secondary school class, no matter how involved he or she is in community work, no matter who his or her mother or father, or aunt or uncle, or cousin is or was.

As a member of the alumni interviewing network for many years, I have interviewed numerous applicants whom I felt sure deserved to be here and would have done wonderfully here but who were not accepted. Indeed, I have no doubt that my own admission to the College a quarter century ago meant that another equally deserving applicant did not get into Harvard; I have never been so vain as to think that those who are here are the only ones who deserve to be here. Harvard--and every other select college in the land--each year turn away thousands of "deserving" students, not because there is something "wrong" with them, but because the college can take only so many applicants.

The fact that Harvard this year accepted 2,110 or just 11.8 percent of the 17,847 students who applied for admission, in an admissions competition the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid called "the most rigorous in the history of the College," is part of the evidence that the institutional prerogatives regarding admission Harvard is asserting in the case of Gina Grant are not being asserted arbitrarily.

According to the Harvard Gazette of April 6, 6,100 of the applicants scored 1400 or higher on their combined SAT, nearly 9,500 scored 700 or higher on the SAT mathematics test, and 2,158 scored 800 on the Math II achievement test. As in past years, there were in the applicant pool more high school valedictorians, 2,826, than there were places in the incoming class.

It is obvious that not every student who performed so well in these and other categories of excellence, many of whom are probably as wonderful as Gina Grant is said to be, could be admitted. That only so few can be should underscore the complexity of the admissions process--and the point that it must be the admissions committee who decides who comes to the College, not a juvenile court judge in South Carolina, not the student's advocates, and not each individual applicant.

The third obligation Harvard must uphold here is related to the first, and is the most important of all. It is the obligation university officials have to declare in the strongest terms that the fundamental requirement for membership in a community which is supposed to be devoted to truthful discourse is telling the truth right from the beginning.

I am not unmindful of the predicament Gina Grant faced, and I completely agree that her past should not have been disclosed to the larger community, or even to the full Harvard admissions committee. But I disagree that she was right to keep the information completely secret from Harvard officialdom.

Indeed, the fact that some despicable person hiding behind the cloak of anonymity is trying to ruin Gina Grant's chances for a productive life indicates that her past was not going to be kept secret. This disclosure made it clear that someone is keeping tabs on her and that, regardless of the rules of the juvenile court, she was not going to be able to obscure her past.

The anonymous disclosure means that it would have been practically wise for Gina Grant to take the risk of trusting someone high in the Harvard echelon with the full story of her past. And it would have been the morally responsible thing to do as well.

I repeat that I do not believe that the full admissions committee should have been told. But I do believe the Dean of Admissions and the President should have been informed. Why? Because, they are the relevant senior guardians of the welfare of this community: who is accepted for admission and under what circumstances is their responsibility. Further, they are individuals in positions which have always called for great discretion and judgment. Would anyone argue otherwise? Does anyone doubt that during their long years of service they have privately adjudicated issues of the greatest delicacy?

Is anyone, including a judge in South Carolina, to say that they do not have the right to know the truth about the extraordinary past of an applicant for membership in the community they oversee because they cannot be trusted to be discreet and act fairly? Whoever wants to assert that ought to state it plainly. And then they should state what that view leads to--that Harvard is not a community where the many adhere to a code of conduct that rests on humanitarian ideals, but just a collection of individuals who are morally free to get here any way they can.

I fully realize that my position demands a great deal of an 18-year-old. But, for one thing, Gina Grant's involvement with the criminal justice system did not result from a minor infraction. She was involved in the most serious of crimes. That does impose an extraordinary obligation on her, and it will for the rest of her life, to think and act with the utmost care.

And yet, even as Gina Grant has lived a life filled with more peril than most of us will ever know, she has persevered and thrived with the help of some people who know about her past.

And she has growing evidence now in the aftermath of the disclosure--in the advocacy of two very able legal specialists, and in the support of Cambridge Public School officials and her teachers and peers at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and an apparently substantial number of students at Harvard--that many individuals will stand with her because of who she has proven herself to be.

She has risked her life before. She needed to risk her life in a different way in dealing with the Harvard admissions process, because the "risk" of exposure and rejection that involved is the risk she will face for the rest of her life.

So, Gina Grant was obligated to take the risk and find a way to tell someone in a high place at Harvard about her past. She did not do so, a transgression anyone with any sense of compassion should be able to understand. But that she did not made it imperative for Harvard to rescind its invitation to her--for the sake of the principles which undergird this community.

I am glad university officials did so.

And I would be as pleased if, now that those principles have been reaffirmed, Harvard were to re-obligate itself to this particular student whom it once admitted because she has rebuilt her life in exemplary fashion and, for her good and for the good of this community, re-admit Gina Grant.

The Writer is a Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois center for Afro-American Research and a preceptor in the Expository Writing Program.

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