Tantalizingly Far from Right


 Harvard’s missed opportunity with Michelle Jones. 



Michelle Jones’ admission to the PhD program in Harvard’s history department was rescinded earlier this month, causing a worrying student body and faculty to question the university’s commitment to its mission.  


As per the original story covered by the New York Times, Ms. Jones was by no means an ordinary candidate. While the university has previously accepted students who have a history of having been incarcerated, Jones’ case stands out for she carried out her scholarship while still in prison, serving a twenty-year sentence for having murdered her 4-year old son. A teenager at the start of her sentence, she went on to rehabilitate herself in studying her own prison, earning a college degree, and becoming a published scholar. Now 45, she finds herself being denied a place she earned against the greatest of odds.  


The newspaper spoke with Professor Kaia Stern of the Graduate School of Education and Director of the Prison Studies Project, who expressed serious concern at the university’s decision to rescind Ms. Jones’ admission. When asked whether she thought the university could seem justified in wishing to protect itself from a misconstrued association with the student, Professor Stern pointed out that on the contrary, it betrayed the institution’s core values of diversity and scholarship. 


She further argued that Professor Stauffer’s suggestion—that Jones would struggle to find her place on a campus occupied by the “elite among elites”—was a greater digression from the university’s principal values than the admission he was rebuking. “It’s a disgrace how the administration continues to disregard Harvard’s mission to create citizen leaders in the face of pressure from the public eye,” she claimed. That Harvard continues to be a pioneer of trends that are replicated in other schools further places a burden on it to be on the right side of moral quandaries as this one.  


What does it really mean for the university to have decided that Michelle Jones, for what she represented, was not fit for enrollment despite having been admitted? Surely it is recognized that the values of inclusion and diversity that Harvard claims are among its most crucial, can only be maintained through an unwavering commitment. Even if these were to be seen as exceptional circumstances – Chelsea Manning, a former Army soldier who was convicted for acts of espionage found her fellowship offer rescinded as well – that it would appear acceptable to make such an exception is worthy of our criticism.  


Even though redemption isn’t explicitly at the core of Harvard’s mission, it seems as though the justification for Michelle Jones’ rejection is entirely different. By making the offer and eventually withdrawing it, the university reveals that it is willing to recognize but not support the redemption of Ms. Jones. She has become the epitome of what a successful and well-functioning criminal justice system ought to bring about: the recovery of people’s goodness, inquiry, and morality through grueling self-reflection. But Harvard seems to be comfortable in being wrong, elitist, exclusive in this discussion.  


In our conversation with Professor Stern, we asked her about how she felt this incident compared with the decision of the College, last year, to rescind 10 admissions after learning of racist and anti-Semitic posts on Facebook group chats. She declined to comment anything specific on the record, but claimed that while she saw the two as an interesting parallel, the sheer difference in time frames between committing the offense, and the university’s response to it make one far more indefensible than the other.    


Three Harvard graduate students—Aaron Bekemeyer, Ella Antell, and Laura Correa-Ochoa—wrote in their letter to editor of the New York Times last week that for a criminal record to be seen as an indefinite obstruction to excellence is an idea that deserves serious critique.  


While it’s unlikely that we would ever get a formal comment from the admissions committee, for they don’t as a matter of policy discuss individual applicants, we can be certain that their decision will continue to be seen as regressive.  


Ms. Jones has now enrolled at New York University, which we at the newspaper consider a loss for Harvard. Nonetheless, we wish her the best, and hope that Harvard does a better job of standing by the values it so cherishes.  



Professor Elizabeth Hinton, who was on Jones’ admissions committee, declined to comment on this article.  


Pulkit Agarwal (pulkitagarwal@college.harvard.edu) looks forward to the next steps Jones will take in her career.