This blog does not usually cover breaking news, but Harvard’s recent move to rescind admissions for ten students makes this a timely topic.
The Washington Post is just one of many news outlets carrying the story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/06/05/harvard-withdraws-10-acceptances-for-offensive-memes-in-private-chat/?hpid=hp_hp-morning-mix_mm-harvard%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.64e28d839ba4#comments
Like many schools, Harvard sponsors a Facebook page for admitted students. The page allows students – and admitted students who have yet to matriculate – to exchange information. The topics are typically mundane, including information about student groups, orientation, students seeking others with similar interests (e.g., incoming international students), and the like.
In this case, the Post reports that about 100 members of the freshman class created a messaging group which would “share memes about popular culture – a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges.” For anyone older than 30, this may require translation. A complete explanation can be found here: https://studybreaks.com/2016/12/19/meme-culture/; my summary follows, quoting liberally from the link.
A meme in this context refers to a “humorous piece of online content, usually in the form of an image with text or video, that is copied and rapidly disseminated by internet users across all platforms.” Many college Facebook pages have sub-groups that are devoted to communicating, and commenting on, memes related to college life. These range from tweaking the administration to edgier topics.
At this point, a small alarm bell should start ringing in your head. It is one thing to exchange information, but views about potentially sensitive topics? This may be dangerous.
And so it became on the Harvard Facebook page, as a group of students formed a separate group to exchange messages. Then an even smaller number of that group formed an “offshoot” page to exchange “off-color” or “R-rated” communications, including graphics. This “offshoot” page is where the trouble began. The Harvard Crimson reports:
A handful of admitted students formed the [offshoot] 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.”
Yes, this is very ugly. However, what happened next made news. Harvard admissions administrators learned about the offshoot group, and began monitoring it. Eventually, the administrators reached out to individuals and demanded explanations for particularly offensive posts. Harvard ultimately rescinded ten students’ admissions, well after the deadline for those students to enroll at other schools where they had been admitted.
Per the Washington Post and other news outlets, the university invoked a sort of “moral code” from its admissions policy that was included on the Harvard Facebook page:
As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.
To recap, students congregated on a public web page created by Harvard, then created a “private” chat group, where they made off-color, and hateful, jokes among themselves. Harvard monitored this private page on the Harvard sponsored Facebook page, reviewed the communications, and rescinded admissions.
Aside from whether Harvard’s response was appropriate, the episode points to an emerging reality of the 21st century. Whatever you write or post on the Internet is available to all to see, forever. It may, or may not, result in consequences.
On the Internet, typing something in “all caps” is the equivalent of (rude) shouting. This point needs to be shouted:
STUDENTS SHOULD NOT PLACE ANYTHING ON THE INTERNET THAT THEY WOULD NOT WANT THEIR RELATIVES, FRIENDS, PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYERS, AND COLLEGE ADMINISTRATORS TO SEE.
As college students would say: rant off.
A surprising number of college administrators are looking for such material. According to Kaplan Test Prep, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students. See http://press.kaptest.com/press-releases/kaplan-test-prep-survey-college-admissions-officers-say-social-media-increasingly-affects-applicants-chances.
Even if Kaplan only surveyed “elite” colleges (my guess), those numbers are still eye-opening.
Students need to understand that their social media activity is “fair game” in the college admissions process, and act accordingly.