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College Faces Criticism for Statements on Admissions and Student Protests

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Some students, faculty, and alumni are criticizing the Harvard College admissions office for its public response to concerns applicants will be penalized for participating in protests related to the recent shooting in Parkland, Fla.

On Feb. 14, a gunman killed 17 people in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland. In the aftermath of the massacre, high school students across the nation coordinated walk-outs to speak out against gun violence—stirring up fears that universities may disadvantage demonstrators when making admissions decisions.

After high schools in Texas and Washington threatened to punish students for joining demonstrations, more than 150 schools across the country—including Yale and MIT—issued statements assuring applicants activism-related discipline would not affect their admissions prospects. Many of these statements, often advertised on social media websites like Twitter or Facebook, specifically referenced the violence in Parkland.

The College joined its peers Friday, posting a “Statement from Harvard College Admissions”—since updated—on its website.

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“The mission of Harvard College is to provide a deeply transformative liberal arts and sciences education that will prepare our students for a life of citizenship and leadership,” the original statement read. “As always, those who engage responsibly in exercising their rights and freedoms would not have their chances of admission compromised.”

Over the weekend, multiple alumni and prospective students contacted the admissions office to seek clarification on the College’s stance regarding protests, according to an email sent to some alumni by admissions office staff.

“Many applicants have contacted our office concerned with the effect such disciplinary action might have on their candidacy for admission,” admissions officer Bryce J. Gilfillian ’12 wrote in the email.

The College’s statement did not mention Parkland, and Harvard has yet to publicize its comments on the Twitter or Facebook accounts associated with the admissions office, according to a review by The Crimson. Over the weekend, some students and faculty members criticized Harvard for these actions, alleging the College needed to do more.

“I’m sure Harvard will join these other colleges in defending the rights of high school students who are suspended for protesting gun policies,” Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 tweeted Sunday. “If it doesn’t, I plan to resign my professorship in protest.”

Juliet A. Lewis ’18, unaware the College had posted a statement online, circulated emails, documents, and a virtual petition Saturday—since closed—urging Harvard to explicitly assure applicants that participation in protests related to Parkland would not affect their admissions decisions.

“You don't have to believe in gun control reform to agree that the first amendment rights of high school students should be protected,” Lewis wrote in an email Saturday.

After learning Harvard had posted remarks, Lewis circulated an updated document asserting she was “disappointed” by what she called the College’s “lackluster reply.”

Harvard updated its original statement Monday evening to include explicit mention of peaceful protest.

“Fundamental to our mission is our belief that students have the right to protest peacefully about issues of concern to them,” the new statement reads.

The comments also include new reassurances that the College will not penalize applicants or admitted students for “engaging responsibly” in demonstrations that result in disciplinary action.

Critics of the original statement have yet to comment publicly on the changes. Some, though, say Harvard’s new statement is less personal than those published by other universities.

In a blog post last Thursday, MIT admissions dean Stuart Schmill wrote, “It would be at best quixotic, and at worst hypocritical, if we treated our applicants differently, penalizing them for engaging in responsible, responsive citizenship as the students at Stoneman Douglas and elsewhere have done.”

“Yale will NOT be rescinding anyone’s admission decision for participating in peaceful walkouts for this or other causes, regardless of any high school’s disciplinary policy. I, for one, will be cheering these students on from New Haven,” Yale admissions officer Hannah Mendlowitz wrote in a blog post.

Lewis declined further comment on her emails and petition. The online petition is now closed, though she wrote she plans to send it to the admissions office this coming Wednesday.

Sonya Kalara ’21 said that, while she is proud Harvard released a statement regarding student protests, she thinks the College’s updated response is still insufficient.

“The institution released this statement very quietly and the language is vague and passive. It would be better if they were encouraging students to protest!” she wrote in an email.

In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Rachael Dane referred to the statement posted on the College’s website.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at delano.franklin@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at samuel.zwickel@thecrimson.com.

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