One year after Harvard undergraduate Eldo Kim emailed bomb threats that halted University activities during exam period, experts said they were skeptical that Kim could resume his studies at the College.
Kim’s lawyer, Allison D. Burroughs, wrote in an emailed statement last month that Kim hopes to return to Harvard, but he must face the Administrative Board to be readmitted. With no recent public historical precedent and strict confidentiality rules, it is unclear how exactly the College’s disciplinary arm will handle a mass bomb threat hoax.
Before appearing before the Ad Board, Kim must successfully complete a deferred prosecution agreement, under which he must participate in community service, pay restitution to law enforcement agencies who responded to the bomb threat, and make a public apology. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has said it will dismiss all charges if Kim completes the program over 18 months–a bargain law professionals have described as “extraordinary.”
Experts said that Kim’s defense team must have argued that his actions on Dec. 16 last year were an “incredible aberration” of character as a result of high emotional distress. Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, agreed that there must be “something very redeeming” about Kim, but speculated that the Ad Board may not be as lenient as the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I will say that an emotional situation could be a mitigating factor in punishment, but that doesn’t mean it automatically deems forgiveness,” Lake said. “[Calling in a bomb threat] is not a choice most people will make under stress.”
Though Kim’s case is likely unique in recent history, the College Handbook for Students’ entry on threats involving explosives and bombs says that an incident in violation of Massachusetts law on the matter will be treated by the College as an “actionable offense.”
The Ad Board process is strictly confidential, meaning the Board’s membership and leaders are not authorized to comment on cases coming before them. According to its website, though, the Board embraces a pedagogic disciplinary approach.
"I will say that an emotional situation could be a mitigating factor in punishment, but that doesn't mean it automatically deems forgiveness. [Calling in a bomb threat] is not a choice most people will make under stress," said Peter F. Lake '81.
“The College’s underlying premise is that, except in the rarest of circumstances, students involved in disciplinary cases ultimately will graduate from Harvard,” the site reads.
For Harvard officials, the definition of an unforgivable offense resulting in removal from the community has changed over time, according to Lake. Without a precedent in Kim’s case, Matthew Gregory, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, said that Harvard will have to take a hard look at the extent to which situations involving high emotional distress are pardonable.
“I think ultimately you have to look at the behavior that was done, really separate the other compounding circumstances, and focus on the behavior in what campus policy says,” Gregory said. “If the behavior violated policies, you have to take action on it.”
Harvey A. Silverglate, a Cambridge lawyer who has advised Harvard students facing Ad Board investigations since the late 1960s, said that he thinks the University should be more merciful toward Kim because his crime was not a “real threat.” He said he thought it is “unlikely” but “not out of the question” that the Ad Board will allow Kim to return.
“This student does not pose any concern about violence,” Silvergate said. “So, I think Harvard does not risk anything by letting him back.... I think there’s a chance they will.”
The University responded to the hoax as a serious threat—evacuating campus buildings, cancelling final exams, and calling in law enforcement officials, who conducted a six-hour sweep of the buildings. Lake said he thought the Ad Board could have concerns about students feeling safe if Kim returns to campus after a stunt that rattled many undergraduates in the midst of finals period.
“You’ve got to calculate not only the reality of safety but the perception of it,” Lake said. “You’d want Harvard students to not only be safe, but feel safe.”
If Kim is not welcome back to Harvard, experts said that he could also face difficulty gaining admission to another college because he would have to disclose the circumstances under which he left Harvard in any application.
Experts agreed that the decision will come down to what will be best for the stability and wellness of all Harvard affiliates.
“It all goes back to the same thing—the modern list of what’s unforgivable has changed," Lake said. “It really is a culture-specific decision about how you balance forgiveness and making statements about protecting your community.”
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.