Mass-shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv took to Twitter on Monday to announce that Harvard had rescinded his admission. The school’s reason was that he’d repeatedly made racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic remarks while in high school. Several examples were made public by his classmates, including video of him typing nigger 11 times in a Google Doc and referring, in all caps, to “my Jewish slaves.” When Harvard administrators offered him a chance to atone, his reply, though regretful, failed to sway them. Kashuv is 18 years old and a minor celebrity in conservative circles. Having survived the 2017 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, he bucked the trend set by his classmates — namely, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky — by becoming an advocate for Second Amendment rights rather than a proponent of stricter gun control. Famous conservatives adored him. He was appointed high-school-outreach director for Turning Point USA, a right-wing campus organizing group best known for employing bigots, but was fired after the racism allegations went public. He has met with President Donald Trump. Ben Shapiro is his staunchest defender in the Harvard controversy.
Much of the backlash to Harvard’s decision among right-wing pundits has hinged on its perceived failure to allow for Kashuv’s growth. He was 16 at the time of his best-documented remarks, his defenders argue, and therefore a different person. (Again, he is 18 now.) Of course, Harvard is not actually arguing that Kashuv cannot grow — simply that he cannot attend Harvard, a privilege to which his supporters seem to feel he is entitled. Their argument tends to cut one way: The same Shapiro insisting on Kashuv’s right to a second chance has argued that Tamir Rice deserved to die, for example. None of this has stopped Kashuv from claiming that Harvard’s behavior is an especially damning indictment of the school’s values. “Throughout its history, Harvard’s faculty has included slave owners, segregationists, bigots and antisemites,” Kashuv tweeted. “If Harvard is suggesting that growth isn’t possible and that our past defines our future, then Harvard is an inherently racist institution. But I don’t believe that.”
The ways in which the centuries-long evolution of America’s oldest college differ from the growth of an individual teenager compared to when he was a slightly younger teenager are myriad. But if Kashuv’s argument truly is that admitting him would reaffirm Harvard’s commitment to growth — and that not admitting him is a betrayal of it — it is worth examining what type of growth Harvard is seeking in the first place.
The narrative about Harvard being peddled by Kashuv and his supporters can be summed up thusly: It was founded by slave owners and has employed segregationists and anti-Semites on its faculty, but then it grew less bigoted — and thereby demonstrated a commitment to evolving — and is at risk of betraying that evolution by denying its admits the same opportunity. Kashuv’s defenders tend to be hyperbolic, and often delusional, about the stakes of this betrayal and the glory days that preceded it. David Brooks has described the Harvard admissions committee as “the epicenter of meritocracy,” despite 14 percent of the school’s student body being made up of legacy admits and a history of rich parents’ — like those of Jared Kushner — essentially buying their children’s way into the school. (Not to mention that nonracism is itself a merit worth considering.) Shapiro writes that Kashuv’s rescindment means “our universities may be irrevocably broken.” Presumably a hypothetical status quo where students with a documented history of bigotry are greeted with open arms is preferable. It seems not to have occurred to either Brooks or Shapiro that denying a safe haven to flagrant bigots may be central to whatever evolution away from racism Harvard is pursuing. The school suggested as much in 2017, when it rescinded admissions offers from ten students who were revealed to have shared racist messages in a Facebook group.
This not to say that Harvard has been unmoored from its racist roots. As with any prestigious college, access is still determined by the privileges and disadvantages wrought by racism. Even as the black share of the student body climbs, black admits still tend to be from the richest black families in America — and therefore are among the black students least in need of the advantages that Harvard provides. In recent years, black Harvard students have made public their experiences with interpersonal bigotry on campus, including in social-media campaigns like “I, Too, Am Harvard.” There is little doubt that plenty of people who said and did racist things in high school but never got exposed are enrolled today. There is as much room for growth as there has been growth. But in fits and starts, many Harvard administrators have shown a desire to be less outwardly tolerant of racism and foster a more equitable and representative student body than before — even if they have not always succeeded. In this light, perhaps the lesson to be learned from the school’s evolution is not that anybody can grow, as Kashuv suggests, but that the growth of an individual admit is secondary to Harvard’s.
In this particular case, the school has determined that Kashuv’s presence at the school would harm its evolutionary mandate. Perhaps administrators are overreacting. Or perhaps Kashuv’s rejection is emblematic of their trying to be better. I am personally agnostic about his predicament, though I do support the notion that teenagers should be granted ample opportunities to transcend their worst mistakes. (Being awarded a spot at Harvard hardly qualifies, to be sure.) Maybe if he and his supporters were as openly critical of, say, draconian prison sentences for juveniles, or if they supported more expansive admissions considerations for Harvard applicants generally, I would have fewer doubts about their long-term commitment.
But the reality is that, while there may be an argument that Harvard should be in the business of doling out second chances to high-schoolers, that is never how it has actually operated. Thousands of students are denied admission every year because a middling semester torpedoed their chances of securing a high-enough GPA. College admissions are determined almost entirely by the minutiae of what applicants did and did not do in high school. Kashuv seems unremarkable in this regard. If his stellar grades and contrition mean his bigoted behavior should be overlooked by administrators, as his defenders contend, surely there are a handful of rejected applicants who did not write nigger in a Google Doc to provoke their classmates or rank female peers by race and attractiveness who are as deserving, if not more so, of having their applications reconsidered. It would certainly be more consistent with the kind of growth that Harvard appears to be pursuing — even if Kashuv would rather it guaranteed a paved road to his own exoneration.