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More Administrators Defend Michelle Jones Decision

Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. By Jessica M. Wang
By Joshua J. Florence and Mia C. Karr, Crimson Staff Writers

Two top Harvard administrators said the decision to deny Michelle Jones admission to Harvard’s graduate History program was not unusual, reiterating a previous defense of the decision from the interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The Marshall Project's story on Michelle Jones—a promising Ph.D. candidate who served over 20 years in prison—reported that administrators rejected Jones’s application even after several professors recommended her for admission, leading to widespread backlash against the University.

At the October Faculty meeting earlier this month, interim Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench said Jones’ denial was nothing “unusual.” In interviews, both Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and Social Sciences Dean Claudine Gay also said administrative input and disagreement with professors during the Ph.D. admissions process is not uncommon.

“It’s not unusual—well, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s not like it never happens,” Smith said.

“I think there are people who don’t necessarily understand how admissions work,” Gay said. “As Dean Dench was explaining, there are structural aspects that can account for misperception.”

Gay and Smith both said that they are not directly involved in Ph.D. admissions within GSAS.

“Just because admissions in the College and the graduate school both report to me doesn’t mean I have any influence on who gets admitted,” Smith said.

It is the University’s administrative policy not to discuss individual applicants like Jones. Gay said she doesn’t believe the Ph.D. admissions process would be possible “in the absence of confidentiality.”

Several Faculty members spoke at length about Jones’s application in the initial article in the Marshall Project, which Smith said they are welcome to do as individuals.

“What individual faculty do and what we do as an institution in the administration really do are two separate things,” he said. “Faculty can choose to speak about whatever they want. I hope they choose to respect the confidentiality of individuals.”

Smith added that the Marshall Project “says they’re just an independent media organization, but that’s not what it looks like to me.”

“There was an advocacy group on the other side that wants us to talk about this issue,” Smith said.

In an op-ed published in The Crimson last month, Bill Keller, the editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, responded to similar claims that the publication was an “advocacy group”.

“Finally, for the record, the Marshall Project is a news organization that reports on the criminal justice system,” Keller wrote. “We are ‘an advocacy group’ only in the sense that we advocate honest, independent, fact-based, and fair journalism.”

In response to the Marshall Project’s article, over 150 professors signed a petition which demanded, among other things, that the University include criminal history in its non-discrimination policy. Smith declined to take a stance on whether the University should make that move.

At last week’s Faculty meeting, Anthropology Professor Rowan K. Flad said that many people suspect that the University's decision not to admit Jones was based on a fear of bad optics.

In response to a question about University administrators taking optics into account, Smith replied:

“Can I be glib for a second? If we did, we did a poor job of it. So no, not at all. Just look at what happened.”

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

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