There is nothing quite as “Harvard” as Harvard throwing minority women under the bus.
This fall, a history scholar named Michelle Jones will begin her doctoral work at New York University. Earlier this year, she was rejected from Harvard — after being initially accepted. While there are plenty of academics who could relate to Jones’s exclusion from one of the most elite universities in the world, a closer look beneath the surface reveals the politics that shape the kinds of people who are typically “selected” — and those, like Jones, who are kept out.
The future Dr. Jones has already distinguished herself as one of the most sought-after graduate students in the country. But unlike many of her peers with elite pedigrees who come from generations of unacknowledged privilege, Jones was forced to overcome unfathomable odds in her quest to enter the overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class world of academia.
Having served 20 years in prison for killing her child, Jones managed to not only survive psychological trauma, sexual violence, physical abuse, poverty, racism, sexism and two decades of incarceration but also obtained a bachelor’s degree, became a certified paralegal, conducted historical research, and produced award-winning scholarship — all from behind bars. Her stellar application included letters of recommendation from internationally known luminaries, including a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Intent on obtaining a doctorate, Jones applied to Harvard and was voted in by the university’s history department. But colleagues in the department of American studies convinced the university’s leadership to reverse Jones’s admission and exclude her from the incoming class of PhD students.
“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” John Stauffer, a Harvard American studies professor, told the New York Times, which published Jones’s story last week. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
The response is shocking and repulsive. But as a scholar of racial oppression, an African-American Harvard alumna, and a past president of the Graduate Student Council at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, I’m unsurprised that regressive forces within and outside of the university attempted to sabotage the career of a black woman scholar. Time and time again, Harvard — despite a superficial commitment to diversity — chooses to turn its back on the most vulnerable groups in our society.
Michelle Jones’s story reveals entrenched racism, sexism, and classism among Harvard elites
Jones’s story reveals entrenched racism, sexism, and classism among Harvard and other elite universities. But of course, this ongoing history is not the image that Harvard conveys to prospective students. As an alumna, it is clear to me that until Harvard’s complicity with multiple systems of domination is plainly confronted, the presence of a few minorities will continue to obscure the systemic and everyday practices that ultimately excluded Michelle Jones — and maintain the status quo.
Although I was not initially knowledgeable about Harvard’s long tradition of protecting white supremacy and sexism when I was admitted to the university’s PhD program in sociology, I certainly began to realize something was amiss as I observed and encountered the university’s subtle and overt stigmatization and disadvantaging of women and racialized minorities.
In my very first year as a PhD student, Larry Summers, then president of the university, made headlines for suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences results mainly from innate biological differences — not discrimination. While Summers was eventually forced to step down from his presidential post, the fact that he was hired as the university president in the first place suggests just how rampant such ideas are within academia. Summers was, in turn, enthusiastically hired by Barack Obama’s White House, showing how little overt sexism deters from elite white men’s professional success.
I was trained as a graduate student at Harvard to focus on inequality “out there” in the social world — not within the functioning of Harvard’s own institutional practices. Through historical research, reflections on my own conflicted experience, and extensive discussions with other minority scholars, I would eventually come to learn of Harvard’s long and ongoing history of protecting the racial and class order. It is no wonder that the brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a PhD at Harvard, bitterly and correctly concluded that he was “in Harvard, but not of it.”
As I worked alongside some of the world’s leading scholars of racism, I began to detect its subtle functioning within the very same institution where I was earning my degree. From microaggressions in the classroom to the compulsive centering of theoretical work by white men, it became evident to me that institutional racism and sexism were features of my own educational environment.
According to the New York Times/Marshall Project profile of Jones, Harvard’s “president, provost, and deans of the graduate school” — a coterie of white and Asian academics — all decided to take the highly unusual step of reversing Jones’s admission due to “concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students.” Some feared that Jones would not be able to handle the “pressure-cooker atmosphere” of the campus.
Stauffer, one of the American studies scholars who worked diligently to overturn Jones’s admission — an expert on “anti-slavery movements” — put it this way: “One of our considerations ... was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”
We are to believe that two decades of incarceration and a lifetime of overcoming trauma, sexism, racism, and abuse are nothing compared to Harvard's "pressure cooker" atmosphere, where “everyone is elite.” Meanwhile, many of these same elites coast on second, third, and fourth chances through generations of privilege that exclude minorities just like Jones.
But beyond the dubious motivations of the scholars and administrators who worked to exclude Jones, I wish to underscore the lead that the New York Times somehow managed to bury: Harvard’s centuries-long complicity with systemic and institutional racism, sexism, and classism.
This kind of action defines Harvard at its core
As a Harvard-trained student of racism, I have had to confront, with horror, the school’s commitment to maintaining the racial, gender, and class order, even as it increasingly cloaks it under a banner of neoliberal diversity and inclusion.
In 2012, nearly half of Harvard undergraduates were drawn from families “in the top 3.8% of All American households.” And, aside from its steady and unfair stream of legacy admissions that privilege the already privileged, Harvard continually forgives itself for profiting from and justifying crimes against humanity such as slavery, eugenics, and imperial violence — crimes that the university has never and will never pay for.
To take just one example of Harvard’s horrors, consider the fact that Charles William Eliot — president of the university in the late 1800s — played a major role in legitimating eugenics, an ideology first developed by white male scientists for the purpose of promoting the genetic erasure of groups deemed to be inferior. Harvard has, in fact, been described as the “brain trust” of the eugenics movement.
The idea that certain human groups are undesirable and should be removed from the face of the planet would later find favor with Hitler, who drew on eugenics to justify the extermination of millions of Jews and other stigmatized people. To this day, there is still a student dorm named for Charles Eliot. And worse -- he is not the only white supremacist currently honored and commemorated at Harvard. The same could be said about many campuses across the country.
The contrast in the scale of the crimes involved here is staggering. By institutionalizing and promoting racism and sexism, Harvard has, directly and indirectly, harmed millions by justifying the enslavement, torture, murder, and exclusion of groups deemed "unworthy" and “subordinate.” Yet forces at Harvard found it impossible to forgive an individual incarcerated black woman for a crime she actually paid for — out of fear of white, racist backlash.
And then there’s another unacknowledged dimension of this travesty: the intersectional positionality of university president Drew Faust — a wealthy white woman at the helm of a university that already advantages wealthy whites. There is a harrowing parallel between Faust’s decision to cater to the protective rage of elite racists and conservatives and the fact that 53 percent of white women voted in the presidential election for a racist who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists globally.
Faust, a specialist of the Civil War, famously joined calls for Harvard to confront its ties to slavery. But somehow, the university she helms couldn't bear admitting Michelle Jones. If Faust could not deign to admit a highly qualified black woman who already paid her debt to society in 2017, would she have had the moral courage to stand up against slavery in the era she studies as a historian?
Perhaps the most terrible irony of this ordeal is the fact that if any university could afford to absorb and combat a backlash against one black woman's admission, it's undoubtedly Harvard. The richest university in the world, with a massive $37 billion endowment, Harvard could obviously handle racist pushback if it had the political will to do so. Yet rather than using their unparalleled economic, political, and cultural capital to take a stand, university officials actively chose to protect white supremacist elitism.
Michelle Jones’s experience of marginalization unveils the tenuous predicament of minority students who make their way (or don’t) into the elite world of academia. And hers is just one saga. It is no coincidence that two major stories illustrating Harvard’s exclusion of minority women made international news within the same week.
Just as news of Jones’s story made headlines, we learned that Chelsea Manning’s semester-long invitation to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was rescinded. Manning, whose visiting fellowship would have examined the military’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals, was disinvited from the university following the public temper tantrums of multiple CIA directors and officials. That includes CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who, in a flurry of apparent outrage, resigned from the Kennedy School’s fellows program to protest Manning’s invitation. Somehow, Harvard finds it impossible to welcome Jones and Manning, even as the university honors President Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, a current Harvard fellow, as well as CIA officials, like Henry Kissinger, who are quite literally responsible for war crimes.
As Harvard bows to pressure from the CIA to silence and stigmatize Chelsea Manning, one wonders: Where are those conservative “free speech” warriors who, like the president, have ardently defended white supremacists and Nazis?
These twin stories of women’s exclusion from Harvard matter because of the university’s unparalleled influence not only within academia, but within the broader social and political landscape. They also underscore how minorities — including women and nonwhites — can actively participate in the exclusion of other minorities. Taken together, the Jones and Manning cases highlight the marginal status of progressive politics at Harvard, where certain decisions and policies challenging the status quo are allowed, just as many others are aborted, overturned, and overruled — usually behind closed doors.
While initial efforts to welcome Michelle Jones and Chelsea Manning illustrate Harvard’s ideological diversity, the bottom line is that all too often, regressive forces win.
Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University. She is the author of Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Temple University Press). Her next book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race, will be published in 2018. Find her on Twitter @alwaystheself.