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Incoming students shared offensive memes on Facebook. Harvard rescinded their admission.

Harvard withdrew its admission offer to at least 10 students after the private Facebook chat surfaced.

The Harvard University campus.

Darren McCollester/Newsmakers via Getty Images

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Harvard has rescinded admission to a group of students who circulated discriminatory, obscene, and abusive memes on Facebook. The Harvard Crimson first reported the withdrawal of acceptance to at least 10 students as of April, after the students posted memes in a private group chat called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”

As reported by the Crimson and allegedly reproduced by the Tab, the memes include a variety of offensive and inflammatory subjects, ranging from Holocaust jokes and racist descriptions of Mexicans, Middle Eastern children, and illegal immigrants, to jokes about death, bestiality, pedophilia, and child abuse.

An incoming freshman told the Tab that several students had emailed screenshots of the offensive memes to the university. The Crimson reported that the university emailed students about the memes in mid-April.

“The Admissions Committee was disappointed to learn that several students in a private group chat for the Class of 2021 were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics,” one such email reads. “As we understand you were among the members contributing such material to this chat, we are asking that you submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the Admissions Committee.”

According to an anonymous now-former student, the admissions department requested that the students fully disclose their contributions to the group. The students were also banned from attending an April event for incoming freshmen while their status was under review. The official withdrawal of the admission offer came “roughly a week later.”

University spokesperson Rachael Dane told Vox that the university “does not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.” However, the university notifies all accepted applicants that their status can be rescinded for “behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

The Facebook group chat in question initially sprang up as part of a larger unofficial offshoot group of Harvard’s official class of 2021 Facebook group; Harvard maintains no authority over such unofficial offshoot groups. The larger offshoot group is an example of a broad Facebook meme trend among the Ivy Leagues and other academic institutions in which schools form wryly self-deprecating groups with names like “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Teens.” The pages and memes often take aim at the home school, as well as other schools and academic rivalries. The intent, usually, is to foster school spirit and a sense of camaraderie.

The larger unofficial Harvard group had about 100 members in December, when some members suggested making a separate R-rated offshoot account. According to one incumbent freshman who spoke to the Crimson, students were required to post “provocative memes” to the larger group before they could join the smaller, R-rated “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens” offshoot. Several students who did not opt to join the smaller group reportedly voiced their concerns to officials.

Incumbent freshman Jessica Zhang told the Crimson that “I do not know how those offensive images could be defended,” while student Cassandra Luca was ambivalent: “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.”

Increasingly, however, universities and high schools seem to be viewing memes as part of a student’s broader online activity — activity that can have real-world consequences. In recent years, students have been expelled from college and high school campuses for spreading fringe hate speech rhetoric online, for posting unauthorized “creepshots” of women to Facebook and a meme implying a school shooting threat, and for racist Snapchat posts.

Last year, Harvard censured a number of racially suggestive and sexist jokes on another unaffiliated Facebook group, which was linked briefly from its official Class of 2020 group. However, the university declined to take further action, noting that the “exchange occurred independently of Harvard College” and that the students involved had not yet matriculated.

This year, those traits apparently weren’t enough to excuse the students, or the memes, in question.