At least 10 students who posted sexually explicit and racially offensive memes to a Facebook group chat had their admission offers rescinded by Harvard University, according to the school’s student newspaper, the Crimson:
A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group--titled, at one point, "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens"--on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen. In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child "piñata time." After discovering the existence and contents of the chat, Harvard administrators revoked admissions offers to at least ten participants in mid-April, according to several members of the group. University officials have previously said that Harvard's decision to rescind a student's offer is final. College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement Saturday that "we do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants."
The flap is just the latest in a series of headline-grabbing problems involving students and social media. As my colleague Catherine Gewertz notes, it’s commonplace for colleges and universities to monitor prospective students’ social media activity, and it’s not at all unusual for colleges to rescind admissions offers.
The Crimson reported that the group chat began with a mostly light-hearted exchange of memes among the university’s incoming class. Then some students formed a darker splinter group. The university’s admissions office set up and maintained the initial group, but disclaims responsibility for “unofficial groups,” the paper reported.
It’s not an altogether new situation for Harvard, according the Crimson:
This incident marks the second time in two years that Harvard has dealt with a situation where incoming freshmen exchanged offensive messages online. Last spring, some admitted members of the Class of 2020 traded jokes about race and mocked feminists in an unofficial class GroupMe chat, prompting Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 to issue a joint statement condemning the students' actions. "Harvard College and the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid were troubled and disappointed to see a conversation that included graphics with offensive themes," Khurana and Fitzsimmons wrote in their statement, which they posted on the Class of 2020's Facebook page. But administrators chose not to discipline members of the Class of 2020 who authored the messages. Then-Interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman '67 said in an interview at the time that the individuals in question were "not matriculated students at this point."
Samantha Schmidt of the Washington Post has more background and context on the situation, noting that similar “meme groups” have been “popping up at the campuses of Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Penn, Yale, The University of California Berkeley, Dartmouth, and others.”
These groups have become so popular that many now have more members than the schools have students. In early February, a Harvard freshman started a Facebook group titled "Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens", modeling it after two similar university-based groups: "UCLA Memes for Sick AF Tweens" and "UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens," according to an article in the Harvard Crimson magazine, Fifteen Minutes. By early March, there were more Harvard Memes members than Harvard undergraduate students.
See below for more Education Week coverage of teens, social media, and the responsibilities of K-12 schools.
- Schools Weigh Access to Students’ Social Media Passwords
- District’s Social-Media Monitoring Led to Expulsions of Mostly Black Students
- Teachers, Teens, and Social Media: Q&A with Danah Boyd
for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.