“Terrible behavior has real life consequences, children”
This year, 39,506 applicants vied to be one the 2,056 students in Harvard’s class of 2021. With a 5.2 percent acceptance rate, the competition was certainly fierce. Those who made the cut would’ve needed to rack up a number of academic and extracurricular achievements, and likely even followed the now-ubiquitous advice to clean up their social media presence, lest a college admissions officer stumbles upon a questionable selfie or two on Instagram.
This spring, 10 incoming Harvard freshmen found out that this advice applies long after acceptance. According to The Harvard Crimson, the university has given several admitted students the boot over their offensive postings to a Facebook group for Harvard teens:
Students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punch lines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child ‘piñata time.’
In an email to the Crimson, Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote that “we do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.”
As widespread as Facebook is these days, it’s easy to forget that it was originally created as a platform for college students. Today’s teens often prefer Instagram and Snapchat, but higher education institutions still use Facebook to connect students with each other. The Harvard College Class of 2021 Facebook group description reflects that intent. “Join this group to meet your classmates, share where you're coming from, ask questions, keep in touch, etc. Your experience starts with the amazing peers around you, so stay connected,” it says.
The description also cautions students that “Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
Despite that explicit warning, about 100 incoming freshman formed a separate group to share pop culture memes and jokes. Incoming freshman Cassandra Luca told the Crimson that things took a turn into offensive territory when some students decided to form “a more R-rated” group, which she did not join. Officials at Harvard found out about the group and emailed each of the student members, asking them to send copies of everything they’d posted to the unofficial group.
“On the one hand, I think people can post whatever they want because they have the right to do that,” said Luca. “I don’t think the school should have gone in and rescinded some offers because it wasn’t Harvard-affiliated, it was people doing stupid stuff.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punch lines directed at ethnic or racial groups.[/quote]
The First Amendment grants people the freedom to say what Luca calls “stupid stuff.” Internet bullies and trolls are all too common online and most get away with it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes consequences for that kind of behavior. Just ask some of the folks who have been fired from their jobs in recent years for posting offensive content on social media.
Digital strategist Luvvie Ajayi, who wrote the bestselling book I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, had some firm words for the dismissed students on her own Facebook page:
Still, some incoming students might have been surprised by Harvard’s actions. Last year when incoming members of the class of 2020 shared racist and sexist posts in an unofficial social media group, officials at Harvard didn’t take such a strong stance. They merely expressed that they were “troubled and disappointed” by the group and had it shut down.