By Ryan Tibbens
Kyle Kashuv is everywhere this week. Everywhere except Harvard, that is.
You see, Kashuv survived the Parkland school shooting and went on to become a conservative activist and rising star in Turning Point USA, a conservative political group (believed by many to be a white nationalist organization). His was a singular but confident voice that did not blame the NRA nor call for greater gun control after the shooting. He earned excellent grades (weighted GPA of 5.345, unweighted GPA of 3.9), graduated second in his class, and scored 1550 on his SAT and was admitted into Harvard University.
And then, in May 2020, a former friend revealed racist, derogatory, and generally dim-witted comments and messages written by Kashuv in private message groups. It turns out that, in addition to being an excellent student and conservative political activist, Kashuv is (was?) a racist and a douche bag. When that information went public, Harvard re-evaluated his acceptance and revoked it. After a series of letters, emails, and messages back and forth, the school indicated that the decision was final.
Predictably, a media frenzy ensued. Many people applauded the decision; after all, there should be no place for that kind of racism in modern America. Many others condemned the decision; of course, everyone makes mistakes, and people can learn and improve and apologize. And apologize he did. Nearly every media outlet in the country offered its take on the situation: The Atlantic, NPR, Breitbart, Vox, even Education Week in addition to the Times, Post, Tribune, and the rest. Here we are now.
Everyone sees this as a matter of progress, of just deserts, of political correctness, or of censorship. The debate is all about should and shouldn't, good and bad, right and wrong, left and right, new and old.
But maybe the real debate should be Harvard itself, not just Kashuv's college plans. Harvard is a private institution (despite massive government subsidies), so it has more freedom in establishing admissions criteria than do most public schools. To all the conservatives who think this is horrible, terrible, the end of free speech, etc. -- how is this different than the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple? Those who championed the free market and the private business's right to choose should be applauding Harvard. Then again, those who decried the baker for not serving everyone equally might need to reassess their views on Kashuv's rejection. Kashuv committed no crime, engaged in no violence; in fact, his stupidity was generally limited to private conversations in which friends were trying to be outrageous, meaning no one would ever have known if someone didn't leak the info. We can argue all day about the friend's motives or moral imperatives or whatever, but that, like Kashuv himself, isn't the source of the current conflict.
The problem is Harvard. Once a small, Puritan school, Harvard is one of the wealthiest and most powerful educational institutions on the planet. It is the oldest college in the United States and issues one of the most desirable degrees anywhere. Harvard influences every major industry, every branch of government. Though it shed its Puritan ties long ago, Harvard seems determined to enforce some nebulous modern morality. The school recently fired Ronald Sullivan, "the first black faculty dean to preside over a dorm at Harvard" and a world-class defense attorney, because of his role as attorney to disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Yet Harvard once held slaves, supported Apartheid in South Africa, excluded female students, and engaged in a wide variety of questionable investment, admissions, and research practices. Just recently, the school was sued for using racial quotas to limit Asian-American admissions; this was not the first time the school had used demographics to sway admissions. In the 1970s, students began "divestment" movements to force the university to cut financial ties with oppressors, abusers, and political ne'er-do-wells: apartheid, tobacco companies, Sudanese genocide, fossil fuels, and more. The Harvard Management Company repeatedly refused to divest, stating that "operating expenses must not be subject to financially unrealistic strictures or carping by the unsophisticated or by special interest groups." Does the university stand by that language today? Are finances steering their decisions in these intensely public debates?
But now Harvard has revoked an admission offer because a student used racial slurs and offensive language in private messages when he was 16. Kashuv survived the Parkland shooting and claims that the event forced him to reassess his values and goals; he claims to be an entirely different person than the teen who made the terrible, racist jokes two years previously; he has admitted to his mistakes and apologized. What is Harvard saying by revoking the admission offer? Is Harvard suddenly affected by some higher morality? Is use of the 'n-word' literally unforgivable? Is the rejection politically motivated? While the motives, aside from some vague morality, are unclear, one thing is certain -- this is not about academics. David Hogg, another survivor of the Parkland shooting, will be attending Harvard next fall despite his 1270 SAT score (the bottom 25% of those admitted had an average SAT score of 1460 out of 1600; Kashuv scored 1550). If one of the most academically selective institutions in the world is allowing academics take a backseat to personal behaviors or ideologies in the admissions process, then Harvard has created its own new problem. Cancel Culture has reached the most elite institutions, and now we, as Americans, need to figure out how to proceed -- Can people be forgiven? Can (or should) we tolerate non-violent bigotry? (See this related article from Read.Think.Write.Speak.)
Here's the solution. It's easy. Harvard should publish its guidelines for morality the same way they release average GPAs and SAT scores. As a private institution, Harvard has the right to decline any student who doesn't fit their criteria and mission, but to help applicants and avoid future problems like this, the university should state clearly what is or is not acceptable behavior. Directly and indirectly, Harvard influences much of American life, and if the school seeks to affect our national morality, maybe they could do everyone a favor and just say what they believe (and what they think everyone else should believe too).
because no one else should do it for you.