Last week, the New York Times and the Marshall Project reported that Harvard University rescinded Michelle Jones’s acceptance into a History Ph.D. program. Jones was released from prison last August, where she served 20 years for the murder of her four-year old son. While incarcerated, Jones attained a bachelor’s degree, became a certified paralegal, audited graduate-level courses, and published and presented via videoconference her own scholarly research on American history.
We condemn the decision to rescind Jones’s acceptance. Though Michelle Jones perpetrated a lurid and reprehensible crime, she has served her time, reclaimed her life, and should have been helped along her impressive trajectory by Harvard. Reforming people is a key goal of the United States prison system, and Jones is clearly a strong example of successful rehabilitation.
Moreover, the decision calls into question Harvard’s core educational and institutional values. Harvard purports to be accessible to all students and scholars regardless of their background—as reflected in the College’s need-based financial aid program and its increased recruitment of minority students, among other initiatives. If Harvard is truly searching for the brightest minds, a criminal record should not preclude enrollment at the University, whatever the potential media backlash.
Jones’s scholarship and dedication to research should be valued more than her past, which she atoned for while in prison. As Professor Alison Frank Johnson, the director of graduate studies for the History department, stated, “Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we [Harvard] decided—unilaterally—that it should be X years plus no Harvard.” Harvard is not a member of the judiciary branch, and thus it is not Harvard’s place to determine whether Jones has rightfully expiated her past. Harvard should seek to be a bastion of redemptive justice, rather than overstep its boundaries as an academic institution by making paternalistic decisions.
We are also concerned about the role that Harvard’s culture of elitism may have played in this decision. According to Professor John Stauffer, an American Studies professor who flagged Jones’s acceptance, one of the considerations in the decision to rescind her acceptance was whether she could adjust well to Harvard. Stauffer said, “if this candidate [Jones] is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”
We vehemently reject the notion that Harvard should strive to be a bastion of elitism, especially considering that this elitism is rooted in a history of classism, sexism, and white supremacy in which people from low-income backgrounds, women, and people of color were deemed unfit for a Harvard education. It is not lost upon us that Jones is a black woman who spent part of her adolescence in group homes and foster care, thus lacking the privileges that some assume the stereotypical Harvard elite should have. Rather, Harvard should encourage scholarship from people of all backgrounds, including those who don’t fit into a particular archetype of what an academic should be. There is no ‘correct’ background for intellect.
As an institution of higher education, Harvard’s top priority should be the promotion of scholarship and the education of its students. There is no doubt that Harvard does have a reputation to maintain. But, it has built this reputation by educating and producing groundbreaking scholars and world leaders, not by stifling potential academic growth in order to save face. A student’s acceptance should not be contingent on the potential backlash. Rather, it should be based on the student’s merit alone. It is ludicrous and cowardly for Harvard to diminish Jones’ academic accomplishments in an attempt to avoid negative attention.
Ultimately, Harvard’s loss is N.Y.U.’s gain. We look forward to the scholarship Jones will continue to produce—N.Y.U. is lucky to have her.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
The Rejection of Michelle Jones is Harvard’s LossBy turning away Jones, what message is Harvard sending to my students about the possibilities for their own futures?
We Are Educators, Not ProsecutorsUniversities should set an example to follow. Instead of bowing to pressure, they should have the courage to take principled stances, especially when it is politically impractical to do so.
Letter to the Editor: Misrepresented in Michelle Jones's Admission CaseJones’s case became front-page news only because the Marshall Project, which encourages leaks, received some, and then distorted facts in the service of its advocacy goal.
Letter to the Editor: The Marshall Project Responds to Professor StaufferI sympathize with Professor John Stauffer, who has made himself a scapegoat in the case of Michelle Jones. But his letter to The Crimson is an attempt to blame the messenger.
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