College & Workforce Readiness

Harvard Withdraws Acceptance of Students for ‘Offensive’ Facebook Group Posts

By Catherine Gewertz — June 05, 2017 4 min read
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UPDATED Harvard has withdrawn offers of admission to at least 10 students who traded sexually and racially charged memes in a private Facebook group.

It’s become commonplace for colleges and universities to monitor prospective students’ activity on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and some students have not been accepted in part because of their postings. But it’s unusual for students who’ve already been admitted to have those offers withdrawn because of their social media activity.

The university’s move was reported by its student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. It based its reporting on interviews with several members of the Facebook group set up last December by a few students who’d been admitted to the class of 2021.

The name of the group, at one point, was “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” the Crimson said.

The memes and messages traded by students in the group included ones that made fun of sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, the Crimson said. One post joked that abusing children was sexually arousing; another referred to the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child as “piñata time.”

Harvard administrators discovered the group and its contents, and revoked admissions offers in April to at least ten students, the Crimson said.

UPDATED Harvard would not discuss its decisions with the Crimson, saying in an email that it does not “comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.” Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said the same thing in response to Education Week‘s request for comment and discussion.

Apparently the chat that got Harvard’s attention was an offshoot of a larger Facebook messaging group of about 100 students admitted to the class of 2021, according to the Crimson. That group was set up to share memes about popular culture, and one student told the Crimson it featured mostly “lighthearted” memes.

But soon some members formed an offshoot group for exchanging “more R-rated” memes. The founders of the offshoot group decided only to admit members who had posted “provocative” memes in the original, larger group, the student newspaper reported.

“They were like, ‘Oh, you have to send a meme to the original group to prove that you could get into the new one,’” Cassandra Luca, an admitted student whose offer was not rescinded, told the newspaper. “This was a just-because-we-got-into-Harvard-doesn’t-mean-we-can’t-have-fun kind of thing.”

Officials in Harvard’s admissions office sent emails to students they believed had posted “offensive” messages in the group, asking them to submit statements explaining their actions, the Crimson reported. Students were later told their admissions decisions were under review, and told they couldn’t attend Visitas, Harvard’s annual late-April weekend for prospective freshmen.

A week later, at least 10 of the students got letters informing them their offers of admission had been withdrawn.

The Harvard admissions office maintains a Facebook group for its class of 2012, and warns members on that page that their admissions offers can be rescinded “if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” according to the Crimson.

Last year, when some incoming freshmen made offensive remarks online, but Harvard responded only with a joint statement condemning those actions, The Crimson said.

UPDATED The National Association for College Admission Counseling surveys its members regularly, and has found that many colleges rescind offers of admission.

In a recent survey, between one quarter and one third of the surveyed colleges said they’d rescinded offers of admission, said David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy. The most common reasons were academic dishonesty, such as cheating, or lying on an admissions application; and behavior that resulted in disciplinary action.

In a survey last summer by Kaplan Test Prep, 35 percent of college admissions officers reported checking social media sites to learn more about applicants. Of those, 47 percent said such checks had a positive impact on their impression of students.

One student said on Twitter, for instance, that she facilitated an LGBTQ panel at her school. She hadn’t included that information in her application, but admissions officers reported to Kaplan that it “made us more interested in her overall and encouraged us to imagine how she would help out the community.”

Forty two percent of the admissions officers who reported that they check students’ social media sites, however, said that the process had a negative impact on applicants. One student, for instance, omitted previous misdeeds from his application.

“A young man who had been involved in a felony did not disclose his past, which is part of our admissions process,” one admissions officer told Kaplan. “His social media page shared his whole story. If he had been forthcoming, we would not have rescinded his acceptance offer, but we had to.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.