Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harvard revokes admission of students based on what was said in a private(?) chat room

Harvard revoked the admission of 10 students (see here) based on what the students said in a private (can't have been too private) chat room.

(ADDED later upon reflection- Harvard has only confirmed that there is a clause students are made
aware of about immaturity and moral character. As for the reason for the revoking- we only have
what is reported and that comes from the students. Are the students trustworthy on this?  Given that they are being expelled for moral reasons... But more seriously we really don't' know. I just want to caution that we do not know the full story and never will. Note that Harvard is not  legally allowed to disclose why they revoked, while the students can say what they want.  For an example of how off a reported story can be see this though I am sure you all know other examples.)

Normally I would be aghast (and I may still be aghast) because of the slippery slope:

Today you revoke admissions because students mock sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the death of children, and call the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child ``pinata time''

Tomorrow you revoke admissions because a student is a Trump Supporter.  (Readers: I assume that you would find revoking admission because a student is a Trump supporter to be disgusting and absurd.)

I felt strongly against this and sought out some other viewpoints. Here are some:

1) Harvard is within their rights to do this legally according to what they agree to when they accept you. This is true. This is also irrelevant- I am interested in if its the right thing to do, not if its legal.

2) The content of the chat rooms indicates a lack of moral character.  This is a stronger argument. However the nebulousness of ``moral character'' reminds me of the origin of taking moral character into account: it was an excuse to let in less Jews (see the book t Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, see The Chosen: The hidden history of admissions and exclusion a review here).  Jews do not have less moral char, but it was used as an excuse to admit less of them.  Even though in the case at hand moral char is a legit issue, the history of the use of this issue bothers me. Slippery slope again.

3) For crying out loud bill, LIFE is a Slippery Slope! You have to draw the line somewhere! And wherever you draw it, these kids are over that line.  This argument, combined with the moral-point of item 2, I do find compelling.

4) Here is a one border (I do not know if it was crossed): If a student personally attacks another student then this is grounds for  revoking. Sounds good but what constitutes a personal attack?

Counter argument: : Whenever a disgusting point of view is censored or punished the conversation shifts from

                                              That is a disgusting point of view


                                         Free Speech! Oppressing unpopular views!

I would rather the conversation be about why the point of view is wrong (or disgusting)  rather than on Free Speech.

Right now I am 75% against the revoking of the students admissions. This has no effect- I am not in any position of power, I won't give less money to Harvard (I am an alum-Grad school, which is why I noticed the story in the first place). I find the question interesting and, more than usual, welcome your comments. Based on your comments that 75 might change! In either direction!


  1. I also found this concerning.

    What they did was not illegal and, importantly, did not harm anyone. On the other hand, Harvard's response will harm them. They will have to put their lives on hold for a year and re-apply to colleges next year. The response (kicking them out of college) seems disproportionate to the "crime" (saying inappropriate things).

    Can anyone truly say that they have never said or done something that might be offensive to someone, even in private?

  2. As the University of Maryland looks at increasing the penalties for what they call hate speech I worry that if a student says that they think illegal aliens should be deported instead of being able to take the seats of citizens and get state subsidized tuition cuts it seems possible they would get kicked out of school in the near future.

  3. I think this is the correct decision for two reasons:

    1 - The internet is increasingly part of our lives, and it's important to make it clear to kids, teenagers and young adults that what they say online has real life repercussions, and that morally abhorrent viewpoints are not tolerated;

    2 - When the state doesn't clearly delineate acceptable moral policies, as it hasn't in the USA, it is up to institutions that have political power to step up and do so;

    Harvard in particular is a huge influence in shaping the political landscape of the USA and the world, and should be providing these opportunities to students responsibly. To your 4th point, even if an applicant doesn't personally attack another student, if by going to Harvard they receive the opportunity to enact political violence against a group of students, is there any difference there? To me, there isn't.

    Addressing the first comment:
    "What they did [...] did not harm anyone."

    Not true, behaviour like this is exactly what creates an environment where minorities don't feel safe. Political aggression is just as bad if not worse than physical aggression.

    "On the other hand, Harvard's response will harm them."

    Why should these students not be responsible for their actions? If similar comments were made at a workplace, would there not be similar repercussions?

    "Can anyone truly say that they have never said or done something that might be offensive to someone, even in private?"

    It's not a matter of offending other people, it's a matter of making politically charged statements that are directly harmful to certain groups of people, and that create an environment where minorities don't feel safe. Can anyone say they've never offended someone else? Definitely not, but can most people say they've never advocated for child pornography, or for ethnic cleansing? Absolutely yes.

  4. Today you say that if a student supports child porn or ethnic cleansing, revoke.
    Tommorow someone (not you) might say that if a student supports free speech and the case in the supreme course is a porn case,
    or if a student supported the second Iraq war should have their admission revoked.

    That is what worries me.

    You are probably saying that YES there is a slippery slope but if a student is CLEARLY over the line they should have their admissions revoked. I would agree but this still worries me.

  5. I feel like Harvard missed a teaching moment here. Teenagers often don't have good judgement (I certainly didn't at that age, thank goodness Facebook wasn't around yet) and part of college is to fix that. There are countless ways to punish people without rescinding their admission. Maybe require them to do some community service, for example. Rescinding their admission seems particularly harsh, especially when you consider that if everyone did it (if Harvard does, then why not everyone?), these students would no longer be able to attend college.

  6. I understand your slippery slope fears, but basically agree with Mathis above that it's a correct or at least OK decision. But here's a question: IF Harvard had come across the offensive material in a routine check (as I assume most admissions offices do) of the students' social media BEFORE accepting them, and THEREFORE rejected them solely because of it, would you be fine with that decision? i.e. is it more the late revocation after-the-fact that is upsetting, or is it the reason for the revocation that is upsetting?

    1. (Independent of Harvard since I added to my post that we don't really know what happened.)
      The question of using Social Media posts for admission to ugrad, grad school, med school, law school, divinity school, is also a tricky one.

      Option one: use such but make it WELL KNOWN that you are using such. This seems fair. But see Option Two

      Option two: use such but DO NOT make it well known. This way you can catch people as they really are. This sounds very bad to me but it may be what people are doing now, though not intentionally.

      The more general question is: How much should ones moral character be used to admit someone to ugrad/grad/med/law.
      If someone would be a GREAT doctor but the social media posts show that he's also an unapologetic anti-semitic racist what do you do? You are prob thinking that being an unapologetic anti-semitic racist he CAN"T be a Great doctor, or at least these things wold get in the way of working with other doctors--- but what if he only holds these views on social media but in person is a fine guy? Or what if the job does not entail working with other people?

      I have no answers.

    2. I think there is an important difference: Suppose you get accepted to 6 colleges. You accept the Harvard offer and decline the other 5. Then Harvard rescinds their offer. Now you're unable to attend college this year and have to re-apply next year (plus you need to fill in that year in your CV). That's much worse than not getting into Harvard in the first place, but getting 5 other offers.

  7. Assuming that there *is* a definition of right/wrong is the beginning of a slippery slope. As you point out, there is a clear legal/illegal definition, but IMHO the question here is not legal/illegal or right/wrong but whether it is a good or a bad decision.

    I think it's a GREAT decision. The punishment is trivial -- nobody's life is screwed because they didn't go to Harvard (or to any other place). This is a superb reminder, both to the students whose admission was revoked AND to the larger student body at Harvard and elsewhere, that ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES; and in today's society, regardless of whether people are genuinely outraged or are simply being politically correct, THIS BEHAVIOR IS UNACCEPTABLE AND HAS CONSEQUENCES.

    Bravo, Harvard.

    1. I don't think the punishment is trivial. Their lives are likely being set back by a year, if not more. But, more importantly, where do you draw the line on appropriate punishment? Hopefully, you agree that 15 years hard labor is too much for some offensive remarks made in private. Where is the line?

      There are many examples of people's lives being ruined because an online lynch mob hounded them out of a job for some remarks they made. It's terrifying to think that one injudicious comment could be plastered over the internet and haunt you for the rest of your life. Yes, things you say on the internet can have severe consequences, but that's not something to celebrate.

    2. I do view a setback of one year as trivial. There are plenty of things to do in a year that can have a positive effect on one's life.

      I didn't say the punishment is "appropriate", I just said it's good. My whole point is that there is no line. Today you might consider 15 years hard labor too much for "some offensive remarks made in private"; 50 years ago, it might've been viewed very differently, and 50 years from now, it might be viewed very differently. Heck, it might not be viewed as "some offensive remarks made in private" today if you belong to the groups targeted by the online nastiness of these kids. I feel that it's naive to pretend that there is a clear and objective definition of right/wrong, fair/unfair punishment, etc.

      Yes, there are many examples of online lynch mobs hounding someone out of a job. Part of living in the 21st century is learning to deal with it. Maybe a public apology is a good way to put something behind and move on? I don't know the answer, but whether we like it or not, things we say online will stick around and will haunt us. Let's learn (and teach) to deal with it.

    3. Comparing ejecting the students to any punishment that goes beyond the relation between the private organization and its members is misleading. Harvard, like any other private organization, may decide for itself to what extend and in which settings it will accept (what Harvard perceives as) mocking of victims of sexual assaults, celebration of the murdering of children etc. from its members. Excluding the members from the organization is obviously the most severe possible punishment, so I do not see why it should be difficult to decide where to draw the line. The line is exactly at ejecting someone from the club. Anything beyond that is illegal, so it seems easy to draw the line for the punishment.

      If one disagrees with Harvard's viewpoints, the best course of action is simply to not apply for membership of this private organization. From what little has been made public about the circumstances, it seems like a fair decision. Anyone who disagrees should simply seek other educational institutions with a different set of values. In particular, should Harvard enter a slippery slope and start ejecting students for being Republicans etc., the school would (even disregarding the fact that this would probably be illegal) luckily very quickly stop being such a popular school for young people to attend.

  8. Independent of this admission matter, I wonder if slippery slope is a good argument to support or oppose anything and if so, how?

    Example: in the fight over gay marriage, you would see argument like "if we legalize gay marriage today, tomorrow are we going to legalize marriage between human and animal, or maybe human and non-animal?", things like that.

    I don't have good answer, but if we could draw a satisfactory line of what is acceptable and what is not, could we get rid of slippery slope argument at all?

  9. Ah-we have here a meta-slippery slope- if I apply the
    `what about the slippery slope to A' then I might apply it to B,C,... Z and get to where I don't want to be.

    One rule of thumb might be if we've previously seen a similar policy go down a slippery slope.

  10. There is a really important distinction that many of the comments are missing: revoking admission offer is not the same as expelling an enrolled student. Clearly there is a time continuum, but a crucial bright line must be drawn somewhere; there is a point at which the applicant turns into a member of the community. Harvard rejects lots of applicants, and that isn't a "punishment" nor is it a judgement of the applicant's individual merit. In the admissions decision-making, Harvard is constructing a class that will (collectively) have the best experience as a class. The actions between admission-offer and enrollment may give additional information that causes the admissions-decision-makers to realize that their original choice of class was unwise. Once someone becomes part of the Harvard community, the response to bad behavior will be different, governed by rules of fair-process, aimed to teach the student rather than to shape the community, and it clearly must be decided on an an individual basis.

  11. You apply for five jobs. Get offers for four. Accept one, turn down the others. The company whose offer you accepted turns around and says, "no, nevermind, offer revoked" to you.

    Have they essentially fired you?

    Are the consequences any different?

    Is it far worse than having not gotten an offer from them in the first place?

  12. You assume that all of your readers would agree that a Trump Supporter should NOT have admission revoked based on that.
    While I hope that happens, a Univ of Rochester Prof got in trouble (though not fired) for a pro-trump facebook post:


  13. Alan Dershowitz thinks it was a bad decision:


    but I take bill's point in his addition- do we really know the ins and outs of the story? Does Alan D?

  14. What was said in the chat room? There are not enough facts (for me anyway) to reach a rational opinion.

  15. Off topic:


    I would like to share something that you all would find it useful.

    I have created a power point slide that details the algorithm that I developed to find whether a given graph has clique of given size; maximum clique size of given graph.

    The algorithm is constructive, usable, complete exhaustive search. Time complexity is better than quasi-polynomial time where n is up to few 1000(s) and slower than quasi-polynomial time when n is above few 1000(s). Space complexity is O(n^3).

    Slides can be found at Slides(pdf) and Slides(tex)

    Working implementation of algorithm in C++ can be found at github

    Thanks for providing an opportunity to share this information.

  16. My guess is someone raised the Alt-Right flag to see who would salute.
    Hopefully, the Crimson will follow up on the story and sort things out. Who were the flag raisers and who were the ones just saluting?

  17. You say it is a slippery slope, I say we have long passed that slippery slope. The radical militant ultra-progressives have forced good men like Larry Summers out of his position as the head of the school for expressing his views, have forced the CEOs of organisations like Mozilla for privately donating to conservative charities, and the list goes on and on. To understand how far things have gone in some universities they can kick of tenure professors out for not using the pronouns a student wants, xem, zem, ... The situation has gone beyond absurd, a small vocal minority are trying to dictate their world view upon the rest of us and seek revenge and punishment for anyone who even slightly steps outside their ideological perception of truth.

    The American universities are not the bastion of free speech and critical thinking, they are the castles of radical ultra-progressives who feel they own them and are extremely rude and intolerant and emotionally and intellectually insecure. You cannot have a decent and respectful discussion with these people, kids who have grown up in an environment of entitlement and haven't experience any major hardship in their life, but feel they are oppressed and have suffered greatly.

  18. I disagree with Alan's comment (5:31 PM, June 22, 2017). Revoking an offer is effectively expelling the student. It is very different to simply not making an offer.

    Suppose you get offers from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. You accept Harvard's offer and decline the other two. Now Harvard revokes its offer. You can't take up the other offers because the acceptance deadline has passed. You've effectively been expelled from college and need to re-apply next year. On the other hand, if Harvard had simply not made an offer in the first place, you would be able to take up one of the others. These are very different scenarios.

    Those comments that support Harvard's decision seem to be arguing that it's no big deal to have an offer revoked.

    Would you support expelling a student who has already started based on inappropriate (but not illegal) facebook comments?