Michelle Jones and the Shame of Harvard

by Rich Yeselson on September 14, 2017

There is an extraordinary, enraging story in the New York Times today about a brilliant and remarkable woman who did a horrific thing and spent 20 years redeeming herself in prison. When she sought admission to graduate school at Harvard, our most prestigious university itself did a terrible thing of a different kind. John Stauffer and Dan Carpenter, senior scholars, precipitated the rescinding of Jones’s admission to Harvard’s history program, but, even worse, President Drew Faust failed to blunt their cravenness, and instead ratified it.

The very good news? Sounds like NYU got a terrific student for their Phd program in history.

There is also—and here I ride my own sad little hobbyhorse—something to be said here for the value of procedural neutrality, both normatively and, often, to protect individuals who fall outside of “typical” circumstances protected by elite institutions. Admissions decisions to graduate programs at Harvard and elsewhere are the responsibility of departmental faculty. The university technically had the right (I infer) to overrule this decision, but it did so only out of fear of rightwing media! (Read the remarks by Stauffer, which are extraordinary in their explicit moral cowardliness.) Leaving decisions about the intellectual and scholarly potential to those most qualified to make that determination—the indigenous “interpretive community” as Stanley Fish might put it—would have prevented the university’s top administrators, including its president, from exercising a perverse oversight in this case.

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/us/harvard-nyu-prison-michelle-jones.html

{ 106 comments }

1

Marc 09.14.17 at 2:35 pm

The Jack Abbott case left a long shadow.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Belly_of_the_Beast

2

alkali 09.14.17 at 3:02 pm

I don’t claim to know whether Harvard did the right thing or the wrong thing here, but I don’t think it is cut and dried as presented. A couple of comments:

1) Whether or not Michelle Jones has redeemed herself is a question about which reasonable people can disagree. It appears that she beat her 4-year-old son to death over a period of time because she thought his medical condition made him a “freak,” and then she secretly disposed of the body. So far as I can tell, even today she has not yet told the authorities where her son’s body is. (The facts are described in the appellate court decision, available online: Jones appealed her conviction on the ground that although she had confessed the crime to acquaintances, the state had failed to locate a body.)

2) RY writes: “The university technically had the right (I infer) to overrule [the department’s admission] decision, but it did so only out of fear of rightwing media!”

a) I agree that if the school acted on the basis of media reaction, that is wrong. But the NYT article actually states, however, that “Harvard’s top brass overturned Ms. Jones’s admission after some professors raised concerns that she played down her crime in the application process.” We can’t know how Jones presented her past to Harvard in the admissions process, because all that is confidential.

b) As a matter of procedure, it seems sensible that the university’s central administration would pay more attention to character issues (where the department has no distinctive expertise) than qualification within the discipline (in which the department is most expert).

3) Notably, Harvard recently revoked offers of college admission to 10 incoming first-year students based on their exchange of racist and sexually offensive messages on Facebook. Certainly there are many distinctions between that admissions decision and the Jones decision, but it would be hard to defend that revocation decision if the Jones admission were not also revoked. (To be clear, I’m not sure that makes either decision more or less defensible — I’m just pointing out that this is something that Harvard surely was thinking about.)

3

mds 09.14.17 at 4:30 pm

Whether or not Michelle Jones has redeemed herself is a question about which reasonable people can disagree.

She has “redeemed herself” in the eyes of the law, which is why she is no longer in prison. I have no idea if she has accepted Jesus into her heart, and so presuming to gauge the appropriateness of her level of contrition might be something that reasonable people might do, but not in the context of vetoing her acceptance to Harvard.

I agree that if the school acted on the basis of media reaction, that is wrong. But the NYT article actually states, however, that

As a favor, let me drop in what the NYT article states that is most relevant to the charge:

“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “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.”

Yes, this is proactive, but where do you think the idea that Fox News would pitch a fit came from?

4

LFC 09.14.17 at 4:33 pm

@3

We can’t know how Jones presented her past to Harvard in the admissions process, because all that is confidential.

Actually the NYT article does deal w/ this:
“In the personal statement, which was not required, she did not detail her involvement in the crime, but wrote that as a teenager she left Brandon at home alone, that he died, and that she has grieved for him deeply and daily since.”

The article goes on to note that she said, or at least implied, that she would have been more specific about the circumstances had she been asked: “Ms. Jones, in an interview, said that if anyone at Harvard wanted her to elaborate on the criminal case or her preparedness for the Ph.D. program, they should have asked.”

I’m not expressing a firm opinion on whether she should have been admitted, though on the basis of the article I’d lean in the direction that she should have been. It’s fairly clear from the article that she’s already an accomplished researcher, so, esp. given these unusual circumstances, I can’t see that it will matter much for her personally whether her PhD comes from Harvard or NYU. (Ymmv.)

5

Sashas 09.14.17 at 4:45 pm

alkali @2

1) The question of her redemption seems irrelevant. I’m going to reiterate the quote from Alison Johnson in the article: “Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard”

2a) Also from the article:
“While top Harvard officials typically rubber-stamp departmental admissions decisions, in this case the university’s leadership — including the president, provost, and deans of the graduate school — reversed one, according to the emails and interviews, out of concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students.
“But the American studies professors said in their memo to administrators that “honest and full narration is an essential part of our enterprise,” and questioned whether Ms. Jones had met that standard in framing her past. In the personal statement, which was not required, she did not detail her involvement in the crime, but wrote that as a teenager she left Brandon at home alone, that he died, and that she has grieved for him deeply and daily since.”
I’ve bolded what I believe to be the key sections. We are obviously not getting primary sources here, but if we assume a modicum of good faith on the part of the article’s author, (that is, if we assume no explicit lies,) this seems fairly conclusive.

2b) I agree.

3) I find it not at all difficult to take issue with the revocation of Jones’s admission, while also defending Harvard’s decision to revoke admission to the students exchanging racist and sexually offensive messages.

Jones served her time. The laws of our country determined the punishment she should receive, and she received it. Harvard should not unilaterally add to that punishment. I’ll admit that I am not intimately familiar with the details of the other cases, but your description makes it sound as though there wasn’t any associated legal action. Harvard is well within its rights to reject applicants based on the expectation of behavior that, while not criminal, is unacceptable for Harvard students.

6

alkali 09.14.17 at 5:05 pm

@4: “Actually the NYT article does deal w/ this:: ‘In the personal statement, which was not required, she did not detail her involvement in the crime, but wrote that as a teenager she left Brandon at home alone, that he died, and that she has grieved for him deeply and daily since.'”

I missed that, thanks. Obviously you would need to see the statement itself to judge, but based on that characterization, the statement would be a lie by omission in that it omits that (i) her son died not by accident but because she beat him, (ii) she secretly disposed of her son’s body, (iii) for at least six years afterward she was denying any guilt, and (iv) she has still not told the authorities where her son’s body is.

The Stauffer quote is outrageous, but some things are wrong even if Fox News thinks they are wrong. If Harvard is going to revoke admission for making racially offensive comments, it can reasonably revoke admission for concealing the body of a murder victim and lying about it in an application.

7

Gareth Wilson 09.14.17 at 8:06 pm

“She has “redeemed herself” in the eyes of the law, which is why she is no longer in prison.”

I hear Mike Tyson is very interested in American history, and the same goes for him.

8

Suzanne 09.14.17 at 8:59 pm

Just chiming in to agree in large part with alkali at @6.

“In the personal statement, which was not required, she did not detail her involvement in the crime, but wrote that as a teenager she left Brandon at home alone, that he died, and that she has grieved for him deeply and daily since.”

As alkali has said this representation of the statement seems to support the contention that she was less than forthcoming. You could even get the impression from it that she was unjustly accused. It’s not as if she left her son at home and there was a gas leak or something. What was determined to have happened was that she beat her four-year-old, left him to die, and buried his body in a place unknown and is still unknown.

This is a hard case. Terrible things were done to Jones at a tender age. Yes, she’s paid her dues in the eyes of the law, but without condoning what the Harvard brass said and how they handled the matter, I’m not sure that’s the only question when considering admittance. I still tend to think she should have been admitted, but I’m also wondering where Brandon’s body is; why, if she knows, she hasn’t told the authorities where to find it; and if those remains might tell us things his mother has not. I would think giving Brandon a decent burial, if that is possible, might also help with the grieving process – if not for Jones, then for the other members of his family who sought to find out what happened to him when he disappeared.

9

William Burns 09.14.17 at 9:08 pm

Why is Harvard afraid of Fox News? They’re Harvard! Massive endowment, status as America’s #1 university, influential alumni, and they’re cowering because Fox News might say something nasty? Makes no sense.

10

internetperson 09.14.17 at 9:28 pm

“She has “redeemed herself” in the eyes of the law, which is why she is no longer in prison. I have no idea if she has accepted Jesus into her heart, and so presuming to gauge the appropriateness of her level of contrition might be something that reasonable people might do, but not in the context of vetoing her acceptance to Harvard.”

Serving a sentence in jail doesn’t change the fact that she beat her four year old son to death. I understand that this decision is a matter of redemption, but there is no doubt that Harvard likely faced a surplus rather than a shortage of similarly qualified applicants- why should they admit a convicted murderer who apparently tried to sidestep her past over the any other applicant? I don’t think that it’s rocket science that, redemption aside, a murder conviction is going to be a severe hindrance in high-stakes admissions.

“She has “redeemed herself” in the eyes of the law, which is why she is no longer in prison. I have no idea if she has accepted Jesus into her heart, and so presuming to gauge the appropriateness of her level of contrition might be something that reasonable people might do, but not in the context of vetoing her acceptance to Harvard.”

But has she? Jail time completion or not, she is still a felon for killing her child- that’s a permanent stain on her legal record that will last, redemption or otherwise. I find it completely absurd that your criteria for redemption is having served a sentence- as though a prior murder conviction should have no influence on the decision of the institution provided that she has served a sentence. It’s a ridiculous notion. Harvard rejects more than it accepts- it makes sense to choose the person without the murder conviction over the one with the conviction.

“The article goes on to note that she said, or at least implied, that she would have been more specific about the circumstances had she been asked: “Ms. Jones, in an interview, said that if anyone at Harvard wanted her to elaborate on the criminal case or her preparedness for the Ph.D. program, they should have asked.””

Everyone wishes that admissions committees would follow up about any questions they have. The fact of the matter is – and this is universal, not a unique injustice to Jones – is that they will decide based on what you give them and who you are, not based on what they want to know and what is missing from your context. She knew that her murder conviction was a huge strike against her- so she strategically didn’t address it in her application. This raised issues at Harvard because that’s not something that will go away if you glaze over it.

“Jones served her time. The laws of our country determined the punishment she should receive, and she received it. Harvard should not unilaterally add to that punishment. I’ll admit that I am not intimately familiar with the details of the other cases, but your description makes it sound as though there wasn’t any associated legal action. Harvard is well within its rights to reject applicants based on the expectation of behavior that, while not criminal, is unacceptable for Harvard students.”

But what if Harvard had the (completely reasonable) standard that a murder conviction under any circumstances is “unacceptable for Harvard students.” Serving the time doesn’t make her actions go away. If Harvard wants to say that her actions 20 years ago seem to make her unfit to be at their institution, they absolutely have that right. I also disagree with the notion that Harvard is adding to that punishment. Attending that school is not a right and is not automatic. If she truly wanted to go to Harvard, the best solution would have been to not kill someone. Blunt, but it’s the truth. Committing a murder significantly raises the bar one needs to clear.

11

bob mcmanus 09.14.17 at 9:40 pm

(iv) she has still not told the authorities where her son’s body is.

That’s interesting. Anybody know her explanation? My first thought is that though having confessed, she is still scared of what the forensics would show.

But still agreeing with the OP and sashas #5

12

DD 09.14.17 at 10:26 pm

The laws of our country do not always make the right decision when it comes to punishment; I think we can all agree to that. No system is perfect, and I think in this case the system failed. We are talking about a murdered child for goodness sake. Harvard, as a private institution, with the history and reputation that it has did the right thing. This is exactly the type of push back we should expect from such institutions. Being denied admission to Harvard for a horrendous crime and not being truthful about it on your application is not a protected class, so Harvard, as a private institution can make that judgement call – a call that the government cannot and did not make. Don’t we want private institutions, whether it be Harvard or a corporation etc to spearhead certain moral rhetoric; albeit, without overstepping fundamental rights? Its not like she has been denied the opportunity to earn her Ph.D (also not a fundamental right). She has been accepted to a great institution that did not find issue with her past.

I imagine there are many people in this world who do terrible things but still have something they can be respected for. That doesn’t change the fact that they still did a terrible thing! Michelle Jones may be brilliant in some area but she murdered her son – let’s not forget that!

13

kidneystones 09.14.17 at 10:55 pm

It’s an interesting case.

Buried at the bottom of the article we find these quotes: At N.Y.U., Nikhil Singh, faculty director of the prison-education program, acknowledged that “Michelle will have a lot to prove. Our hope is that she is actually far, far more resourceful and driven than most college students,” he added, “who take for granted they are supposed to be here.”

“People don’t survive 20 years of incarceration with any kind of grace unless they have the discipline to do their reading and writing in the chaos of that place,” Ms. Jones said. “Forget Harvard. I’ve already graduated from the toughest school there is.”

First, there’s no question that Ms. Jones’ research and academic work within the prison system confirm her skills as an historian. She’s the poster-child, in a sense, for the success of such programs and is fully deserving of all the support she’s received.

I see this as a borderline call, however. A great many excellent candidates are refused admission at Ph.D programs every year, and whatever sense of entitlement may exist at the undergraduate level, there’s far less in my experience when it comes to doctoral programs. The emails are ludicrous and transparently indefensible, and something of a distraction. The only real question is whether Ms. Jones can succeed without the institutional supports she enjoyed in the prison system (yes, I’m aware that prison life brings a very great many hardships) Her accomplishments are remarkable on every level. There’s zero evidence that she’ll have any/many problems with the academics.

The social adjustments are a very different matter, however. Nikhil Singh knows, I’m sure, whereof he speaks. There’s no guarantee anyone conditioned to succeed/survive within a prison system will successfully transition to a world filled with very different pressures, a world that any adult who entered prison as a child will find unfamiliar and daunting.

A Harvard pedigree is pretty much run-of-the-mill compared with the one Ms. Jones has already earned. There isn’t much to choose between NYU, Harvard, or Yale once we get past the question of advisors, and I can’t believe she’ll be ignored, or abandoned, by her many supporters at Harvard. My sincere hope is that she’ll be allowed a period of time out of the limelight to adjust to her new life. Beyond that I wish her every success.

14

Ed 09.14.17 at 10:56 pm

I have mixed feelings about cases like this.

I have a strong opinion that once people are convicted of a crime, their sentence should be the sentence handed down by the court, nothing more nor less, and that private individuals and organizations should be strongly discouraged from piling on and adding their own punishments if they think the court’s punishment was insufficient. Or, as in this case, they think other people will think the court’s punishments is not sufficient.

The other side of this is not getting into a Harvard PhD program is not a punishment. This case would have gotten no attention if this applicant had been rejected during the normal application process, or even if the university rescinded her acceptance later but lied about it and gave some anodyne reason. This is because getting into the Harvard Phd program is not very remarkable.

People forget that we now live in an overpopulated and highly stratified society, which means an institution like Harvard University is going to reject perfectly or highly qualified people for all sorts of random and stupid reasons. They will probably admit someone who is highly qualified into the program in her stead. They should be less of an ass about it, but the problem is living in an overpopulated and stratified society.

And now we have round the clock surveillance and all sorts of media to ensure that someone can never get away from their past.

I don’t have solutions, but directions to move towards is to be to find a way to reduce the importance of Harvard University and its decisions, and to keep past criminal convictions embargoed once its decided that the criminal has served their sentence and is no longer a threat (by the way a conviction for causing the death of a child is fine as a basis for a lifetime ban from working in childcare, as a nurse, or an elementary school, just not from entering an academic program).

15

Matt McKeon 09.14.17 at 11:40 pm

If Harvard had rejected Jones out of revulsion for her crime, that’s one thing. But the quotes from Prof. Stauffer seem to be make it all about P.R.. Its craven.

16

Suzanne 09.14.17 at 11:48 pm

@13: Jones seems to have been 19 when she murdered Brandon and I assume would have entered prison a year or two later (?) She wasn’t a child.

It is certainly true, however, that she faces imposing challenges in adjusting to the world outside after a lengthy imprisonment at such a young age.

17

Cranky Observer 09.15.17 at 12:00 am

= = = This case would have gotten no attention if this applicant had been rejected during the normal application process, or even if the university rescinded her acceptance later but lied about it and gave some anodyne reason. = = =

So you argument is that if what actually happened hadn’t happnened then… I confess I get a bit lost at that point.

18

Belle Waring 09.15.17 at 12:09 am

I’m with mcmanus at 11. Why not at least tell the police where the body is? Though I don’t hardly know what worse they could find upon examination–even this discussion glosses over the crime: she beat her son terribly and then abandoned him to die alone, wounded, over a period of days. That’s a lot different from “I left him alone and he died.” That’s even a lot worse than “I beat him to death.” I think that’s a material enough omission for Harvard to be dubious about, and also in general a question perfectly within the rights of Harvard to decide.

19

Tabasco 09.15.17 at 12:14 am

Harvard will probably hire her after she has finished her Ph.D. Non-tenure track, of course.

20

J-D 09.15.17 at 12:31 am

I never heard of Michelle Jones before reading this post, and I’ve got no particular view about the substantive question of whether she should have been admitted to Harvard or about the procedural question of whether Harvard handled this case well.

But there is a kind of argument which I have encountered in various discussions which seems to be being used by some of the commenters here. I could quote the comments I’m thinking of, but it’s possible that I’ve misunderstood those commenters and they’re not trying to make this kind of argument. It is still a kind of argument I’ve encountered often enough to make me feel that it’s worth emphasising what utter rubbish it is.

The kind of argument I’m referring to is the kind where it’s suggested that somebody should not be subjected to a penalty except in accordance with the requirements of the criminal law. Sometimes it takes the form of suggesting that a person should not be penalised because that person has not been convicted in a criminal trial, but it’s the same kind of argument when it’s suggested that a person who has been convicted in a criminal trial should not be subjected to any other penalties apart from the criminal one. The rule that people should not be subjected to criminal penalties except on conviction in a criminal trial is an important one; but to confuse that rule with the idea that people should not be subjected to any penalties except on conviction in a criminal trial is a major conceptual error. I hope that I have misunderstood (some) comments here and that nobody is making that mistake; but it does seem terribly like it.

21

Bill Benzon 09.15.17 at 12:35 am

Sorta’ off to the side, but while Harvard IS Harvard, that’s all it is, just Harvard. Back in the 1970s when I was getting my degree in English at SUNY Buffalo we thought of Harvard English as something of a high-class intellectual backwater. It’s come up in the world since then and, for that matter, English at SUNY Buffalo certainly isn’t what it was back then. That’s just how it goes, ebb and flow, wax and wane. And Harvard is just Harvard.

22

Joshua Holmes 09.15.17 at 1:32 am

Why not at least tell the police where the body is?

Because something else is buried there that will send her back to prison.

23

bob mcmanus 09.15.17 at 2:00 am

Well, I think it is unfair to speculate too much, but I do think that even given what she has told us, and assuming there is nothing worse to be known, the presentation of pictures, coroner’s report etc might have an emotional impact on the jury, sentencing hearing , and parole board that she would better off avoiding. She is obviously smart.

24

Bruce Baugh 09.15.17 at 2:01 am

The prosecutor sought, and got, the maximum sentence for Ms. Jones, and does not approve of Harvard’s decision.

Ms. Jones’s many supporters include Heather Ann Thompson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in history this spring, and submitted a recommendation letter on her behalf. There is also Diane Marger Moore, the prosecutor who argued that Ms. Jones receive the maximum sentence two decades ago and is now writing a book about the case.

“Look, as a mother, I thought it was just an awful crime,” said Ms. Marger Moore, now a lawyer at a large firm in Los Angeles. “But what Harvard did is highly inappropriate: I’m the prosecutor, not them. Michelle Jones served her time, and she served a long time, exactly what she deserved. A sentence is a sentence.”

I think she’s got the right of it.

25

Gareth Wilson 09.15.17 at 2:05 am

“Though I don’t hardly know what worse they could find upon examination-“
They could find healed fractures that would indicate previous beatings. Years of abuse, rather than a single murder.

26

Redemption 09.15.17 at 2:38 am

Hey, he could go on to a successful career as one UofA professor did after murdering a student while AT college:
http://wc.arizona.edu/papers/98/62/01_1.html

best quote: “Maynard said it’s important for people to understand he was a victim as were the shooters involved in the Columbine High School, Colo., shootings in 1999.”

Yup.

27

Max 09.15.17 at 5:09 am

If the corpse was never found, then all this talk about the precise cause of death is pure conjecture.

Yeah, yeah. There was some kind of confession. Leaving aside more ordinary worries about how confessions are obtained, it’s worth remembering that she’s not any kind of medical expert. And because of her putative involvement, she’s probably not an especially reliable witness, either.

So come off it, people. Base your judgements on what’s confirmed.

28

PJ Wexler 09.15.17 at 5:10 am

I will merely add that according to the New York Times article, the prosecutor in this case thinks that it is not the role of Harvard to ‘punish’ Jones (if having admission revoked is a punishment) beyond the time served. The worrying about how the right wing news media will treat them sees a little odd to be honest-

“There is also Diane Marger Moore, the prosecutor who argued that Ms. Jones receive the maximum sentence two decades ago and is now writing a book about the case.

“Look, as a mother, I thought it was just an awful crime,” said Ms. Marger Moore, now a lawyer at a large firm in Los Angeles. “But what Harvard did is highly inappropriate: I’m the prosecutor, not them. Michelle Jones served her time, and she served a long time, exactly what she deserved. A sentence is a sentence.”

Perhaps (or perhaps not) relatedly, twenty years ago Harvard rescinded the admission of an undergraduate student who pleaded ‘no contest’ to killing her abusive mother. The case made the news for at least a few days at the time.

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/11/us/for-student-who-killed-her-mother-acceptance.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=1

29

Collin Street 09.15.17 at 5:16 am

If being involved in beating people to death is a bar or impediment to an academic career… why does Yoo have a job?

Serious question.

30

Sashas 09.15.17 at 6:51 am

J-D @16
I am realizing that my strong feelings opposing vigilante justice (e.g. Harvard’s action here) are getting mixed up with an equally strong feeling I have that release from prison back into society should not be release from prison into a permanent pariah status. I am having trouble disentangling these positions.

I guess I am guilty of the argument you describe as “utter rubbish”? It sure doesn’t feel like a mistake though.

DD @12
What moral rhetoric do you think Harvard has espoused by their decision to rescind Jones’s acceptance?

internetperson @10
A couple points:
1) If Harvard had a position that a murder conviction is disqualifying, I would fight against that position as a matter of principle. However, I believe it is clear from the article that Harvard does not have such a position and that instead Harvard acted out of concern for media backlash.
2) Removing rights is not the only way to punish. If they were going to accept her and then, as a direct result of a reminder of her conviction, rescinded the offer, then Harvard unequivocally punished her for her crime.
3) Specifically to the point about Jones serving her time: Of course serving her time doesn’t make her actions “go away”. The point of having time for her to serve in the first place is to exact the appropriate punishment. This gets to my response to J-D (earlier in this comment). We should (and Harvard should) be very hesitant to exact additional punishment, since presumably the appropriate punishment has already been levied.

31

Colin Danby 09.15.17 at 8:33 am

Most instructive to see so much vigorous effort to build ex post justifications for overriding the History Department’s admission decision!

But the NYT article gives the game away, no?

“One of our considerations,” Professor Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”

Needless to say, this is not what you say if the issue is simply having committed a terrible crime, or failing to describe it in the application.

32

Lynne 09.15.17 at 9:20 am

I don’t know whether not admitting Michelle Jones is shameful. Others here know more about how universities go about their business, and probably more about how they should go about their business, than I do.

But in the OP we are told Michelle Jones spent 20 years redeeming herself. I don’t see that. She went to jail and served the sentence she received, yes, but becoming a scholar has nothing to do with killing your own child. She killed her child. And she has become a scholar. Good for her. You can set those two things beside each other but being a scholar does not cancel or even outweigh the murder.

*Where is the child’s body?*

It is important convicts be readmitted to society if they are not to reoffend, and it sounds like this woman had a terrible start in life—raped at 14, beaten by her mother when she became pregnant by that rape. But the crime was awful, and while some people will enthusiastically support her, others will not be able to do anything but tolerate her.

33

J-D 09.15.17 at 9:51 am

Sashas

I am realizing that my strong feelings opposing vigilante justice (e.g. Harvard’s action here)

I do not understand what you mean by describing Harvard’s action here as ‘vigilante justice’. I would appreciate it if you could explain that to me.

I guess I am guilty of the argument you describe as “utter rubbish”? It sure doesn’t feel like a mistake though.

If you espouse the argument I described as ‘utter rubbish’ and don’t think it’s a mistake, I don’t understand why, and would appreciate it if you could explain that to me: bearing in mind that the argument I was referring to was not an argument about the facts of this particular case.

The point of having time for her to serve in the first place is to exact the appropriate punishment. This gets to my response to J-D (earlier in this comment). We should (and Harvard should) be very hesitant to exact additional punishment, since presumably the appropriate punishment has already been levied.

I don’t understand how you arrive at the conclusion that the point of having time for her to serve in the first place is to exact appropriate punishment, nor why you would presume that the appropriate punishment has already been levied, and, if you can, I would appreciate it if you could provide an explanation for both these points also.

34

William Burns 09.15.17 at 11:03 am

Between this and rescinding the Manning invitation, Harvard is establishing a reputation as an institution that can be easily rolled. This isn’t a good thing for them.

35

Chris Bertram 09.15.17 at 11:04 am

Harvard are on a roll, they’ve just rescinded a fellowship invitation to Chelsea Manning

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/15/harvard-rescinds-chelsea-mannings-fellowship

36

Trader Joe 09.15.17 at 11:48 am

Somewhere, some black kid who stole a car when he was 19 got denied a job at 7-11 because he has a record.

Somewhere, some rich white guy got denied a loan cause he has a DUI.

In some states a felon, even after time served, is denied the right to vote or to own a weapon or an assortment of other actual rights that non-felons are constitutionally guaranteed.

Of course I’d prefer to live in a world where all of this was not so, but its absolute B.S. to suggest that penalties end when a felon serves their time. Life don’t work like that and no intelligent person expects that it does. If Ms. Jones didn’t know this she wouldn’t have phrased her application as she did – it was really her only hope of getting as far as she did in the process. Indeed parollees are specifically counseled to expect this sort of discrimination.

The only things that make this case exceptional relative to what happens every day somewhere is that a) its Harvard and b) Ms. Jones has some influential friends. Frankly I don’t see how Harvard could “win the P.R.” regardless of what they had done here. It was going to cause a P.R. fuss no matter what and it has.

37

novakant 09.15.17 at 12:10 pm

I am torn on this one, I might be in favour of rejection not for the reasons given by Harvard, but because it seems she hasn’t been completely candid about what happened and is behaving in an obstructionist way by not revealing the site of the body.

But then I feel terribly smug and privileged sitting on the sofa passing judgement … this also has to do with the fact that I have just read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and feel incredibly disgusted by the injustices of the so-called US justice system.

38

T 09.15.17 at 12:40 pm

CB @32
Spooks are notoriously thin-skinned and clannish. The resignation of former CIA deputy director Morell and the cancellation of an appearance by CIA director Pampao sent the message of future non-cooperation of the CIA and potentially broader national security community with the Kennedy School. That would have been a huge blow for the school’s security studies program. I’m sure Elmendorf is kicking himself for the appointment but found the withdrawal a very easy call. And looking to Harvard for profiles in courage is just silly. I mean really silly.

39

Katsue 09.15.17 at 12:50 pm

@32

There’s certainly a good deal of similarity there. In both cases, the obvious motivation is to establish in public that Harvard is aligned to the most reactionary elements in the US.

40

bob mcmanus 09.15.17 at 1:01 pm

And for the record, and I don’t intend to dwell on it, but I have read Deirdre Golash, and am pretty ambivalent about the practice of punishment as retribution or revenge at all, especially in cases where a little social help would make it clear that the crime or similar crimes are unlikely to reoccur. Our laws and justice system, and societal attitudes fostered by it are barbaric.

41

alkali 09.15.17 at 1:03 pm

Looking at this from another angle:

Fairness to people with criminal records can’t simply mean “well, they did their time.” No one is going to hire someone with a fraud conviction as their CFO — that’s a lifetime disqualification. Fairness means serious consideration: is the criminal record genuinely relevant to the person who is before me now?

By that standard, Harvard made a hash of the Jones case. Jones was admitted apparently over the objection of some faculty, who then raised it to the office of the president, who revoked the decision, which in turn caused the faculty who didn’t like that decision to leak to the Marshall Project. Harvard is not a top-down hierarchy like General Motors, but it ought to have its sh&t together more than this. Admitting a student with a serious felony record is the kind of thing that should be elevated to the highest levels automatically, so that if the decision is made to admit, everyone knows that the decision was seriously considered and fully vetted.

Now it seems a hash was also made of the Manning case. WTF? Harvard should not be making decisions to placate right wing media, but it ought to appear in public as if it is competent to manage its own affairs.

42

dbk 09.15.17 at 1:11 pm

I think it would be wise to defer to the prosecutor’s view on this: she served her time, paid her debt to society, and presumably (at least, in theory) society and its members are no longer called upon to continue to judge and punish her.

I’m disheartened by this discussion, frankly. Does anyone here imagine how she must feel about having left her son to die? The Times article quotes her: ” … a commitment to myself and to him … that I will live a redeemed life, one of service and value to others.” She is punishing herself, and will feel remorse for the rest of her life.

Harvard’s rejection was self-serving with a soupcon of class bias for good measure.

I look forward to reading Diane Marger Moore’s forthcoming book.

43

DCA 09.15.17 at 1:17 pm

I don’t think “vigilante justice” is a proper description of what Harvard did: a vigilante administers criminal punishments (usually the death penalty) as a private party, usurping a role that belongs, for good reason, to the state alone.

Having served her time, Jones should not have any further *legal* penalties imposed on her. But admission to the Harvard PhD program is not such a penalty, anymore than the (entirely appropriate) shunning of the formally innocent John Yoo would be. This is not to defend what seems to be craven behavior (but one person’s craveness is someone else’s prudence).

44

LFC 09.15.17 at 2:09 pm

Chances are it’s not going to make any difference at all to Ms. Jones’s future where her PhD comes from, and especially no difference in terms of whether it comes from NYU (where she is enrolling) or Harvard or Yale (which, according to the NYT article, also declined to admit her to its grad program, for reasons not disclosed [or not hacked into etc., as the case may be]).

The name of the institution on one’s PhD can sometimes, of course, make a v. significant difference, but in her case she’s not a typical grad student, and her unusual, in this context, background means that her dissertation is likely to attract attention wherever she does it and whoever her adviser is. (Esp. if it’s good, and there’s no apparent reason to think it won’t be.) The NYT article makes clear that some faculty in the Harvard history dept are very upset about the decision not to admit her, and one of them (Walter Johnson, iirc) is quoted as saying that she will be invited to participate in a seminar on crime and punishment in the U.S. (And one of the Harvard people can sit on her diss cte if she wants, I’d think.)

Feel free to spend 1,000 comments arguing about whether Harvard’s admin made a defensible call here, but don’t be under any impression that going to NYU instead of Harvard will make any difference to her future career, because it won’t.

45

Collin Street 09.15.17 at 2:14 pm

Spooks are notoriously thin-skinned and clannish.

They’re all mental.

[specifically: strategic espionage is a fucking waste of time. A country’s strategy can be straightforwardly predicted from their desires and their capacity, and both capacity and desire permeate all your actions and can usually be worked out pretty quickly. Usually; the people who become spies are the people who can’t do this unassisted and need to look at the back of the book for answers.]

46

Sender 09.15.17 at 2:23 pm

If Harvard made the decision, it should take responsibility for it. I can’t think of anything more childish than to say, “We wanted to admit her, but Fox News made us turn her down.” That statement accomplishes two things, both tawdry–disclaiming one’s own responsibility and demonizing another party that had nothing to do with the case.

It’s very convenient to have bêtes noires to take the blame for decisions you don’t want to own up to.

47

bob mcmanus 09.15.17 at 2:28 pm

shunning of the formally innocent

Ok, one little abstract dwell, taking Golash, and maybe Foucault and funhouse-mirror Nietzsche to my favorite lonesome hermitage, cause troll.

Societies are mechanisms to institutionalize the pleasures of the exercise of personal and social power, both reward and punishment, inclusion and exclusion.

My instinct is to protect Jones from interpersonal and private punishment, including shunning etc. Apparently this mercy without qualities is tentatively shared by all in this thread.

Not for her, but for us.

48

kidneystones 09.15.17 at 3:04 pm

https://www.hks.harvard.edu/announcements/statement-dean-elmendorf-regarding-invitation-chelsea-manning-be-visiting-fellow

The Kennedy School press release on Manning is worth a read. Jones is entering a first-class Ph.D program and Manning is still invited to speak at Harvard.

Take to the streets!

49

mpowell 09.15.17 at 3:19 pm

I am wondering if the people who regard this as vigilante justice also feel similarly about the NFL penalizing players for spousal abuse or when an employee or board member is let go for engaging in the wrong political speech. These cases are not the same (and maybe the people with these views are not either), but it is not clear to me what are all the relevant distinctions one would make.

Harvard screwed this process up and, given that it is Harvard, their actual motivation is more than likely somewhere between improper and completely vile. But I find it completely ludicrous that a graduate program not accepting someone who is otherwise qualified but who was convicted of murdering their child is not well within the norms of our society addresses crime and punishment.

50

Mitch Guthman 09.15.17 at 3:24 pm

I notice that the arguably similar case of Jack Abbott was mentioned by Marc at 1 and thereafter studiously ignored. I think some of the discussions surrounding the Jack Abbott case actually are relevant because I think we need to explore what seems to be the assumption that a person who has done a terrible crime is somehow redeemed if he or she does something that demonstrates artistic or intellectual merit. I’ve never understood or accepted that premise and its weaknesses seem particularly relevant here.

I really don’t understand the supposed relationship between self improvement and expiation. What Michelle Jones has done is to improve herself intellectually during her time in prison. That’s good for her but I question whether that’s the same as having atoned for the murder of her child. There’s a difference between being a great historian or painter or writer and being remorseful about something evil that you’ve done. I think understanding that difference was a critical lesson of the Abbot case and I think being ignored here.

There’s something that doesn’t feel right about the plaudits for Jones, maybe because atonement requires acknowledgment of guilt (seriously lacking) and making amends to those whom you have wronged (apparently no effort, as she converted herself into the victim in place of the son she murdered). Essentially the people around her were happy for her having raised herself up and so they forgave her for killing a helpless child because she is a good researcher who suffered through a hard upbringing. But improving yourself by learning a skill or creating great art seems very different from devoting a part of your life to seeking forgiveness from those you’ve harmed (the boy’s family, who the article implies are not thrilled with Jones being feted as a celebrity) and to atoning for the harm you’ve done.

Like others here, I’m also very uncomfortable with how Jones described the murder. It was ridiculously passive. Reading the account in the NY Times story, it sounds as if she simply came home one day and found the child she’s loved and misses every day dead through some tragic misfortune. Yet, even by her own self serving account, she beat the the helpless boy horribly and then left him to die, terrified and alone. The fact that she’s never revealed the location of his corpse suggests that her account, horrible as it is, probably whitewashed the boy’s suffering.

Another thing I don’t understand is why the parole board, evidently influenced by her newfound celebrity, allowed Jones to be paroled without taking responsibility for the wrong she did. And especially why she was paroled without first disclosing where she hid the dead body of the little boy she’d murdered.

51

Suzanne 09.15.17 at 4:22 pm

@41: She may well be punishing herself, but I didn’t see any remorse in her statement to Harvard as reported in the Times. She said she grieved for her son. No word about remorse, not even for leaving him alone in the house, which was apparently all she admitted in the statement to having done. The use of the word “redeemed” does imply that she needed redeeming, but for what?

52

Dipper 09.15.17 at 5:39 pm

Surely any decent liberal society should believe in rehabilitation of offenders. Michelle Jones has served her sentence and should be free to be a full member of society, full stop. Once universities start moralising about their staff and students its a slippery slope to exercising censorship and placing limits on free thought and expression.

In the UK about a quarter of the population has a criminal record, so at the lower end of casual employment ex-criminals are essential to many employers.

Those who live in the UK are surely familiar with Timpson’s, a chain of small shoe-repair and key-cutting shops. They have a policy of employing ex-offenders as explained in the video embedded here. Personally I’m a fan of the principle and the chain.

53

Chris Bertram 09.15.17 at 5:49 pm

I don’t understand how @Mitch Guthman (and others) can write so confidently about Jones’s current attitudes to her crime. Seriously, how do you know?

54

Sebastian H 09.15.17 at 6:06 pm

We are being offered a bunch of recent college actions that should probably be analyzed under the same umbrella.

1. Harvard rescinds a number of invitations to attend for undergraduates for posting private dark humor memes which included racist memes.

2. Harvard rescinds something unclear re Manning (I say that because she apparently is still invited to speak) for unclear reasons. .

3. Harvard rescinds Jones’ invitation to attend over the murder of her child (with odd side notes about her never revealing the location of the body).

It seems to me there are a bunch of distinctions between the cases though I’m not sure they make a difference. They sort of have the feel of tribalism (we forgive those of out tribe but not those of an outside tribe) and I’m not particularly comfortable with that.

I would tend to think the Manning case is the stupidest. She is arguably a whistleblower who shouldn’t have been prosecuted in the first place. So there isn’t anything to forgive or to have paid for. And if there is something to be paid for she certainly has done so.

The racist memes case is the intermediate case. It is a wrong but not illegal. It hasn’t been ‘paid for’ by the legal system but it isn’t illegal. It raises questions about morality policing of legal acts. It seems to try to punish future acts (we think they might be racist to classmates).

The Jones case is the hardest case. You can take a pretty strong “no outside acts should be considered” stance, but murder is a huge test case.

I would tend to think that if you are ok with Jones being admitted it is difficult to defend the racist memes are bad enough to rescind case but it seems that many want to go opposite directions hence the tribalism suspicion.

55

engels 09.15.17 at 6:14 pm

Harvard’s craven kow-towing to power is and always has been a disgrace to them and to the USA

56

Stephen Austin 09.15.17 at 6:26 pm

Another thing I don’t understand is why the parole board, evidently influenced by her newfound celebrity, allowed Jones to be paroled without taking responsibility for the wrong she did. And especially why she was paroled without first disclosing where she hid the dead body of the little boy she’d murdered.

It appears she was granted a Commutation of Sentence rather than parole. Although the same questions arise about commutation.

57

Mitch Guthman 09.15.17 at 6:30 pm

Chris Bertram at 49,

All that I know about Jones’s current or previous attitudes to her crime is what I’ve read about it in the articles and the appellate court decision. Principally, my difficulties with her current attitude are based on the description of her Harvard essay in which she expressed “sadness” at the loss of the child she’d murdered while expressing herself in such as passive voice that an uninformed reader would have no idea that she herself was the murder. The NY Times and Marshall Project articles describe her life and interests in some detail but make no mention of her ever having expressed more than cursory regret for her poor judgment as a teenager.

The appellate court’s decision is available online and is very disturbing.

http://law.justia.com/cases/indiana/court-of-appeals/1998/111301-lmb.html

I’m not confident in my judgment of her current attitudes and whether she’s genuinely remorseful about having beaten her helpless child and then leaving him to die alone but there’s no indication in any of the many articles about her which suggests that she really is remorseful and nothing to suggest that she feels any obligation to atone for that murder.

But, equally, it seems to me that people who are indignant about her being denied entry to Harvard are no better informed. Which was the essence of my remarks: Just as many people equated Abbott’s ability to write well had redeemed him, Jones’s supporters seem to be equating her ability as an historian to be an indication that she’s a different and better person. She might well be, and perhaps the process of becoming an historian was transformative, but none of us really know.

What we know is that the parole board seems to have focused mainly on her celebrity and hardly at all on her acceptance of responsibility for her crime. It would appear that they couldn’t even be bothered to require that she tell the authorities where the little boy’s corpse could be found as a condition of her parole. It’s a small thing but the boy did have other family and perhaps being able to finally put him to rest might bring some closure and comfort to them.

58

Sashas 09.15.17 at 6:34 pm

J-D @32
DCA @42 provides a reasonably compelling case that I need a better phrase than vigilante justice to try to describe what I’m objecting to. I’m still working on that.

I believe that our justice system exists in order to rehabilitate people who have done terrible things, so that they may re-enter society as full members. In practice, our system seems to attempt to serve that goal while at the same time serving the goal of appropriately punishing people for their crimes. Either way, a sentence levied under law should be a complete sentence. It should be sufficient punishment, and it should be sufficient for rehabilitation. If we fail these goals in practice, then the appropriate remedy is for us to fix the system.

Criminals who go through the system, when they emerge, should be once again full members of society. Any extent to which this is not the case should be codified in their sentence (e.g. our acknowledgement that we do not have full ability to rehabilitate pedophiles, and so even after release they may not be permitted contact with children). In my view, it is inappropriate for individuals or private institutions to levy additional penalties once a criminal sentence is complete.

This may be balanced against other responsibilities that an individual or institution may have. (alkali @40 mentioned not hiring a CFO with a history of financial fraud. That feels iffy to me, but I can see it being acceptable.) Harvard’s action does not seem to be a result of this sort of balancing, but rather relating to judgment of her crime.

mpowell @46
The NFL and board member cases deal with responses to present action. If we fixed the analogy and asked whether the NFL should reject a player who had been convicted of spousal abuse, I would say the NFL should not reject that player. (I assume, of course, that the player would have been accepted absent the crime.) Same deal with the board member. In both cases, the organization would be well within their rights to verify that the individual’s conduct has improved, but I would expect them to not reject the individual out of hand.

59

Cian O'Connor 09.15.17 at 6:43 pm

“That’s interesting. Anybody know her explanation? My first thought is that though having confessed, she is still scared of what the forensics would show.”

It’s possible she doesn’t remember. Her pre-prison life was clearly pretty chaotic. It’s also possible that she just can’t face it – that the guilt would destroy her.

If you read the article, it’s not really clear what happened. The murder charge is based upon the account of a ‘friend’ based upon an apparent confession. Maybe it was a real confession, maybe the ‘friend’ was angry with her, maybe the ‘friend’ was facing a different charge and made a deal.

60

Cian O'Connor 09.15.17 at 6:48 pm

DD: “The laws of our country do not always make the right decision when it comes to punishment; I think we can all agree to that. No system is perfect, and I think in this case the system failed. We are talking about a murdered child for goodness sake.”

The US system is far from perfect, and notoriously broken. Particularly when it comes to the prosecutions of poor blacks. So the assumption that the conviction was safe, or appropriate, is a big assumption.

She’s also a 40 year old woman being punished for the crimes of an abused teenager.

61

Cian O'Connor 09.15.17 at 7:11 pm

Those who live in the UK are surely familiar with Timpson’s, a chain of small shoe-repair and key-cutting shops. They have a policy of employing ex-offenders as explained in the video embedded here. Personally I’m a fan of the principle and the chain.

Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s awesome.

62

LFC 09.15.17 at 8:38 pm

@engels
Harvard’s craven kow-towing to power is and always has been a disgrace to them and to the USA

Harvard has done its share of “kow-towing to power,” but this particular case (M. Jones) does not seem to be an instance of that or, to put it more cautiously, that characterization does not fully encompass what’s going on here.

It’s interesting that Yale, according to the NYT article, also rejected M. Jones’s graduate application and yet apparently it was only the details of the Harvard process and decision that were leaked or otherwise made available to the Marshall Project, which produced the resulting NYT article.

I’m not aware that the Yale history dept and American studies program are less prestigious than the equivalents at Harvard, but we don’t know exactly what went on at Yale b/c the Marshall Project apparently did not have access to the relevant material, and Yale, unsurprisingly, declined to comment for the article.

Finally, and again w/r/t engels’ remark, Harvard’s “kow-towing to power” may well be a disgrace to Harvard, but to say it’s a “disgrace to the USA” is more than a bit ridiculous. If Harvard’s kow-towing to power is a disgrace to the U.S., so is that of every other well-known university in the country.

Indeed, there is no reason for engels to single out one institution, when he could just as easily have made the more comprehensive statement that the political system, foreign policy, and higher-education system of the U.S. are, collectively, a disgrace. That would be a more even-handed way to articulate what seems to be engels’s general view.

63

mrearl 09.15.17 at 8:47 pm

Hmmm. I would have thought a $35 Billion endowment would have come with a set of cojones. But I’m not an academic. How much endowment does it take to grow a pair?

64

Cian O'Connor 09.15.17 at 9:06 pm

Mitch Guthman:

Given how easy you find to judge her, I assume that you must come from a similar background and dealt with similar challenges. I would love to hear about them

In general I love the easy way in which the comfortable bourgeoise judge and condemn the underclass for their moral failings. Because obviously all of us know exactly how we’d behave as a damaged and abused teenager, with a handicapped child born through rape and no money (and presumably little to no support from the state).

She spent 20 years in prison. The 40 year old woman is not the 19 year old who committed the crime.

65

Maggie 09.15.17 at 10:22 pm

If it’s perfectly reasonable for Harvard to rescind her acceptance on the grounds that she didn’t give them all the gory details about something that she did 20 years ago, and that after all she is a convicted murderer …

Then I expect Harvard and other prestigious schools to reject Brock Turner, who is after all a convicted rapist. Who, by the way, has shown far less remorse than Ms. Jones.

66

Suzanne 09.16.17 at 12:16 am

@56: You may wish to read the appellate decision, to which Mitch Guthman has already helpfully provided a link. As he says, it’s disturbing. Jones’ defense tried to discredit a crucial witness in just the way you describe. The court didn’t buy it.

I have no idea if your explanation is correct, but “she just can’t face it” is not justification for refusing to tell authorities where to find the body.

@ 55 et al.: A more apposite NFL case might be that of Michael Vick, who was convicted and served time for operating a dogfighting ring. For the curious, an article describing the trauma experienced by Vick’s dogs, and the path to recovery for a few:

https://www.si.com/more-sports/2008/12/23/vick-dogs

Vick did return briefly to the NFL, but there was a brisk debate at the time as to whether that was right and whether Vick was really sorry for what he had done to his animals. No one denied his right to gainful employment, but many questioned if he was entitled to return to his old high-profile, high-paying celebrity status employment.

I would have preferred that the NFL ban him, but in the end it was all right, because he didn’t do so well and for once I could cheer when a player took a nasty hit, and I’m pleased to report that Vick took quite a few after his comeback.

67

Ronan(rf) 09.16.17 at 1:16 am

“Those who live in the UK are surely familiar with Timpson’s, “

This is true also re black barbershops in the US aswell, iirc(though I cant find the reference) who disproportionately hire ex cons post release.

68

dbk 09.16.17 at 6:11 am

@51 & @57
I took your comments under advisement and read the appellate court decision. It is indeed disturbing for many reasons, including but extending far beyond Jones’s own state of mind.

I return to my original proposal @41 – that we defer to the prosecutor’s view, and that we await her book on the case.

69

Mitch Guthman 09.16.17 at 6:14 am

@ Cian O’Connor at 64,

I don’t disagree that fate dealt Jones a terrible hand. She certainly may have conceived her child as a result of rape but there were alternatives to keeping him and alternatives to killing him. Certainly, in a better world, she would have received all kinds of support in dealing with her circumstances; she deserved better, certainly her child deserved better.

I don’t know how I would have handled similar circumstances but there are a great many young women who have faced even worse situations without, in the most charitable interpretation of the evidence, beating and abusing a helpless child before leaving him to die hungry, alone, and terrified.

And that is probably the best death that child likely experienced: The fact that Jones won’t tell where and how she disposed of the body when all that could still exist are skeletal remains strongly suggests that she did things to that boy which would be reflected in the condition of his bones and teeth. Forensics isn’t my strong suit but if you think about the kind of damage that would still be discoverable today, I think we can safely say that Jones didn’t grant her son an easy death.

This was a terrible, unforgivable crime. I can easily see Harvard or any other institution not wanting to associate itself with someone who could do such a thing. Maybe some people are too quick to judge but it also seems to me that the easy way some of the comfortable bourgeoise grant absolution to people like Jones is a little bit smug, too.

70

Matt 09.16.17 at 8:50 am

This is true also re black barbershops in the US aswell, iirc(though I cant find the reference) who disproportionately hire ex cons post release.

This is interesting, and something I didn’t know, but which makes the rules in at least a fewstates, which both require barbers and hairdressers to have professional licenses and prohibit anyone convicted of a felony to hold them, even more awful and crazy.

71

J-D 09.16.17 at 9:31 am

Sashas
I appreciate the effort you have made to provide me with further explanation, but unfortunately I still do not understand your position; specifics follow below.

I believe that our justice system exists in order to rehabilitate people who have done terrible things, so that they may re-enter society as full members. In practice, our system seems to attempt to serve that goal while at the same time serving the goal of appropriately punishing people for their crimes.

I don’t understand the basis on which you have arrived at both those conclusions, or either of them.

I don’t understand what you mean by —

Criminals who go through the system, when they emerge, should be once again full members of society.

— I don’t understand whether that is supposed to be the basis on which you conclude —

In my view, it is inappropriate for individuals or private institutions to levy additional penalties once a criminal sentence is complete.

— and, if it is, I don’t understand the reasoning that leads from the first to the second.

This may be balanced against other responsibilities that an individual or institution may have. (alkali @40 mentioned not hiring a CFO with a history of financial fraud. That feels iffy to me, but I can see it being acceptable.) Harvard’s action does not seem to be a result of this sort of balancing, but rather relating to judgment of her crime.

I do not understand whether you are still upholding the position I originally rejected, which in my original words was this —

The kind of argument I’m referring to is the kind where it’s suggested that somebody should not be subjected to a penalty except in accordance with the requirements of the criminal law.

— or whether you are now taking the position that there can sometimes be justifications for making exceptions to this, but in this particular case it is not justified to make an exception. I was deliberate in stating that I wasn’t expressing an opinion about this particular case but only about the merits (or, rather, lack of them) of a general position.

72

kidneystones 09.16.17 at 11:53 am

On the larger topic of free speech Manning, etc.

Here’s Amy Wax talking about the risks of speaking in favor of bourgeois values in modern academia. Two interviews with Glenn Loury

https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/47536

73

Lynne 09.16.17 at 1:57 pm

I, too, followed the link and read the appellate court decision, and learned that the crime was not a brief, quick one. Not only did Jones beat the boy and then leave him for days, she disposed of his body and hid the crime for years. Then when she was convicted, she appealed based on the absence of a body.

It is hard to imagine a worse crime. She has served her legal sentence, and must be allowed to build a law-abiding life, but I hope she is never allowed to be in charge of children. And not getting into Harvard does not constitute discrimination, as others have also noted.

Both these things are true: given her crime, and her evident attitude to the crime (hiding the crime for so long, and hiding the body and trying to appeal based on that) she will find many people do not want anything to do with her. At the same time, this might have been a preventable crime had good social supports been available (unknown: the father and grandmother were apparently involved so maybe further help would have made no difference). Certainly getting pregnant at 14 is risky for mother and baby. And another true thing: she has to be protected, as mcmanus notes above: we can’t shun her, she has to be allowed back into society.

Not easy.

74

bob mcmanus 09.16.17 at 2:09 pm

Since we are simultaneously mourning the American 2nd Wave feminists with the death of Kate Millett (Firestone, Willis, Ware)…well some (Jacobin, Robin) of us who have not allied with the billionaire class… I thought I might just add a quote from Setsu Shigamatsu – Scream from the Shadows – Womens Liberation in Japan, 2012

“This chapter not only elaborates how ribu refused the identity and prescriptive telos of wife-to-mother but demonstrates how many ribu activists instead formed communes with other women to raise their children and simultaneously declared their solidarity with mothers who killed their children (kogoroshi no onna). In purposely organizing to support and declare solidarity with such violent and criminalized women, ribu’s praxis as a radical feminist movement offered a complex and counterhegemonic response to how womanhood and motherhood in Japan were bound by the ideology of Japan’s nationalist family system. Ribu’s identification with criminalized and abjected women/onna— such as sex workers, unmarried mothers (mikon no haha), mothers who killed their children, and women fugitives— was part of its radical feminist politics and arguably marked the radical potential and revolutionary impulse of its feminist politics.”

75

Stephen 09.16.17 at 5:52 pm

This is not an easy question, and I would like to raise three hypothetical cases that might be relevant.

1) Suppose that instead of Michaela Jones, a black woman from a very deprived background, we were dealing with Michael Jones, a white man from another deprived background (snaggletoothed inbred semi-literate hillbillies from an obscure rural region where they mostly vote Republican), who instead of when 18 years old beating a child to the point where it couldn’t move and abandoning it to a lingering and hideous death, had at the same age done the same to his girlfriend; and had in prison revealed unsuspected talents as a historian – you may well say this last is an improbable assumption, but bear with me. Suppose Michael Jones then applied, when released after 20 years imprisonment, for a PhD place at Harvard, with a statement that minimised (to say the least) his guilt, and without ever telling where his victim was buried. Should he have been granted a place?

2) Suppose the murderer Michael Jones was white, but his hideously murdered girlfriend had been black. Would that make a difference?

3) Look at this from the point of view of the Harvard academics who would have to supervise or examine Michaela Jones’ PhD thesis. Suppose it were to turn out that her work was not, after all, adequate. Would refusing her a doctorate be a career-enhancing move?

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Suzanne 09.16.17 at 7:03 pm

@68: I’m sure the prosecutor will have more light to shed on the case in her book. Not all prosecutors write them, however, so in most cases we have only to go by the facts at hand. (If the prosecutor can produce an explanation for why Jones was freed without revealing the whereabouts of her son’s remains, it would be helpful – I’m rather curious about that.) The prosecutor’s personal view of the Harvard fuss is worth taking into account from one very close to the case but I don’t find it dispositive.

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engels 09.16.17 at 7:33 pm

the risks of speaking in favor of bourgeois values in modern academia

People have been speaking (read: droning on about) about bourgeois values in academia for as long as I can remember. To give just an explicit example from mainstream moral philosophy, I remember some Richard Arneson papers from 10 or 20 years ago. And of course there are many more occasions (esp in economics) where it’s done but not called by its own name.

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Alex K. 09.16.17 at 10:07 pm

As kidneystones says, she already has skills as a historian. In her own words, she’s “graduated from the toughest school there is.” Hard to argue with this. If she can handle life on the outside, she has the potential to become a brilliant historian, and this potential might be unique among this year’s PhD applicants not just at Harvard. Mike Riggs has a few sensible things to say about it all at Reason.

As for her conviction, there are several reasons why it should not be a major factor in her eligibility for a PhD program. First, she is almost literally a different person from the one that entered prison twenty years earlier. (By the way, the idea that 20 years is “light” is strictly American. In the EU as well as in Russia and Ukraine, women seldom serve even that much for a similar crime, let alone the original 50 years.) Second, she appears to believe that, whatever her crime might have been (if any at all), it was not murder. Verbal remorse is cheap: she could have easily recited the standard mantra. Third, the appellate court’s ruling – the only case-related document I have seen online – shows that the claim that Jones beat the boy to death is only corroborated by one witness, and not the most reliable sort. However, appeals courts in the American system tend to defer to juries in matters of fact-finding, so if the jury found the witness reliable, appellate judges won’t second-guess it (“reweigh the evidence”). The court’s ruling merely addresses issues of law raised by Jones’ lawyers and only provides a small window into the underlying case. To understand it, we have at least to see the transcripts of the original trial.

By the way, has anyone noticed the word “gynatictropin” in this ruling? It’s the only document on the Web where it occurs: the correct term is “gonadotropin.” I would guess the court of appeals copied the monstrosity from the trial transcript without double-checking.

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Leo Casey 09.16.17 at 10:14 pm

NYT article: “In the personal statement, which was not required, she did not detail her involvement in the crime, but wrote that as a teenager she left Brandon at home alone, that he died, and that she has grieved for him deeply and daily since.”

So she volunteered information she was not required to provide, and then punished for not giving enough detail about the crime? What is she supposed to do — produce the equivalent of crime pornography for admission to Harvard?

James Forman speaks for me on this question:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/opinion/a-jail-sentence-ends-but-the-stigma-doesnt.html

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Alex K. 09.17.17 at 6:31 am

@Leo Casey: She admits to leaving her child alone, which means she does take responsibility for abandoning a child with a serious health defect. This is consistent with what she told the child’s father, a female friend, a crisis counselor and a cop (according to them). I cannot know why Jones did not mention beating the child, but a possible reason is that she either didn’t do it or sincerely believes she didn’t do it. The evidence for this comes from a single witness, who claimed that Jones had answered “I guess so” when asked if she had beaten the boy to death. I wonder if the prosecutor who spoke in defense of Jones would agree that the beating charge was spurious.

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Dipper 09.17.17 at 2:25 pm

Lots of discussion here about how much Michelle Jones knew, how much she has told police and the courts, but I haven’t seen anything that was not known at the time of the trial, so the sentence she received reflected the state of knowledge at the time and also as we currently understand it. Hence it appears there is nothing known to us for which she has not served a sentence.

It is dangerous ground for universities to start judging applicants on anything other than academic grounds. It starts by rejecting people with significant crimes, then trivial crimes, then socially unacceptable opinions, then opinions that are just minority opinions.

The situation with Reginald Betts is somewhat different in that having a criminal record can be seen to undermine a person’s ability to implement the law impartially. However, the rate of criminal convictions amongst people of colour is higher than for whites in the UK and I guess the USA as well so this discriminates against people of colour. It isn’t safe to say that the higher rate of criminal convictions reflects a higher underlying criminality; most young men get up to activities that may be considered illegal, so decisions to prosecute people of colour may represent conscious or institutional racism in the criminal system (I know of acts in my predominantly white village that were dealt with by having a word with the miscreants’ parents and not through prosecution. This route may not have been taken if the miscreants had no father or parents who themselves were known to have a criminal record). So blanket exclusion by criminal record would seem to be discriminatory.

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Z 09.18.17 at 8:31 am

Lynne @73 “Not easy” and Stephen @75 “This is not an easy question”

I disagree. The question is not whether Michelle Jones should have been accepted to Harvard PhD. program, otherwise the OP would be entitled Michelle Jones and the shame of Harvard and Yale. I think there are dozens of conceivably good reasons to refuse Michelle Jones to a PhD program. The question is whether the decision to admit her should have been overturned after having been made by the relevant committee. As Rich Yeselson says, once the relevant committee has rendered its decision (presumably taking into accounts all pertinent facts), the decision should be overturned only if it can be demonstrated that something inappropriate took place during the process or if the appointment is impossible for administrative reasons. To be more precise, once the selecting committee has ranked candidates, I believe higher echelons should treat candidates as interchangeable tokens barring exceptional and clearly defined circumstances. Proceeding otherwise makes the evaluation of candidates subject to the whims of administrators and, apparently in this case, the media, a bad idea for a place of intellectual inquiry.

I would like to raise three hypothetical cases that might be relevant.

In view of the above, I find these three hypothetical cases very easy to judge. Has the relevant selecting committee selected the candidate? Yes? Then I believe it is a bad idea to overturn the decision in the absence of a clear and clearly defined administrative or procedural reason. I find these cases especially easy as I read the OP (and agreed with it) without having ever heard of Michelle Jones, so I had no idea what was the atrocious thing she had done 20 years ago, and insofar as I formulated a hypothesis, the reference to the rightwing media made me think she might have been a violent far-left activist (to which I subconsciously assigned the color white).

3) Look at this from the point of view of the Harvard academics who would have to supervise or examine Michaela [sic] Jones’ PhD thesis. Suppose it were to turn out that her work was not, after all, adequate. Would refusing her a doctorate be a career-enhancing move?

Oh come on! First of all, in my experience, it is just not that frequent that a PhD candidate, in any institution, both 1) fails to produce work adequate for a doctorate and 2) nevertheless stubbornly refuses to admit it and insists that the defense process should go forward so that there is no choice but to fail the student. In an élite program like Harvard, with first-class working conditions and stringent screening, I am ready to bet it almost never happens. For a candidate who already has supervised research projects and who already published a scholarly book, the probability that this will happen is virtually nil.

But OK, let us imagine. Will it be a career-enhancing move? No, it won’t. Likewise, if my own PhD student eventually fails to produce a suitable PhD and if I have to fail him, that won’t be a career-enhancing move, because part of my career is to successfully mentor PhD students. But let us continue this train of thinking. Do you think someone would be cowered to give her an unwarranted PhD? And then what? Cowered to accept her publications in élite journals? Cowered to give her a prestigious post-doc? Cowered to grant her tenure? Is Michelle Jones – the published author and research project award winner who, let us recall, was refused at Yale’s Phd program – such an almighty being that we should fear that academic independence itself will be threatened if she ever enters academia? Is that it? And if academic independence is something you hold dear, how about addressing the case of a candidate that was selected by the relevant committee and then barred by the hierarchy with not an inkling towards academic reasons?

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Z 09.18.17 at 9:12 am

Sebastian H @54 I would tend to think that if you are ok with Jones being admitted it is difficult to defend the racist memes are bad enough to rescind case

I disagree, as I see two fundamental differences between the two cases.

The first and most important one is the relative weight granted on the one hand to academic achievements and on the other to the perceived potential and personal character of the candidate (the work vs. the candidate, so to speak). If one is evaluating a scholarly article, the actual achievement is 100% of the decision, so I would defend the publication of an article written by the worse unrepentant genocidal murder (provided the article is worth it). However, when evaluating undergraduate admission at age 18, past academic achievements certainly cannot be all, so even though I don’t think I would have taken that decision myself, I can see why an invitation could be rescinded for sharing racist or borderline jokes. Admission in a PhD program lies somewhere in-between, so I fully expect that the committee took into consideration not only the academic achievements but also the past behavior of Michelle Jones and I can very well understand the committee who does not select her because of that behavior. In her case, in fact, the committee appears to have been divided. But in the end it reached a decision and I don’t see what new information the people who overturned the decision brought to the discussion.

Which bring me to the second fundamental difference. In the undergraduate admission case, something changed between the invitation and its rescinding: people posted objectionable memes. In Michelle Jones’s case, as far as I know, nothing changed. The correct equivalents would consequently rather be: a PhD. candidate is selected, she is then convicted of murder, the invitation is rescinded (I don’t think many people would object). Or: a candidate to Harvard includes in his application file a section entitled “Horny bourgeois tween wants to get in Harvard” (a close paraphrase of the title of the Facebook page with the memes) and fills it with racist jokes and borderline innuendoes then is nevertheless admitted, yet the invitation is later rescinded for no apparent reason. Now, personally I am having a hard time of conceiving of this latter situation at all – it seems that in that case, it would not be hard for the higher administrative echelons to prove that something inappropriate happened at the selection level – but yeah, I guess that if the selection committee could convincingly argue that other aspects of the admission file (typically, indications of great dedication to the common good, for I don’t see which academic achievements at the undergraduate level could compensate for such a provocation) warranted admission to Harvard despite the strange section, I would rather have the decision be upheld.

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Faustusnotes 09.18.17 at 2:23 pm

This is another shocking example of the criminalization of private life in the USA . She did her time, her crime should be irrelevant in selection . Similarly, people shouldn’t be punished in work for crimes that have no relationship to their work (someone raised the example of spouse-abusing NFL stars above). All employees have rights and this is an obvious and egregious abuse of those rights.

Still, at least she can get a job at a real university now!

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Sebastian H 09.18.17 at 6:19 pm

Z, I see what you’re saying as the distinctions between the cases but if those are the distinctions we are making there are other dimensions that open up.

On the dark humor/racist memes thing are you punishing past action, or projected future action?

If past action, they are certainly less bad then murdering your own child. But projected future action is especially fraught for all sorts of reasons. (Especially since equating dark humor automatically with projected future action seems to be a deep misunderstanding of dark humor).

But I’m just sort of groping my way through. I think my actual line would be something like: we need to have norms where outside behavior has much more limited impact on such decisions. I don’t believe that having schools or workplaces policing outside ‘moral’ behavior is really a good idea. At least not with the threat of expulsion/firing. That whole moral clause thing was fought against by progressives in the past for excellent reasons, and I haven’t seen anything which strongly indicates we should switch sides.

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Stephen 09.18.17 at 6:45 pm

Z@82: I think you are dodging the questions. What I asked was, first, whether a hypothetical white Michael Jones, who had hideously murdered his girlfriend, would have been allowed the same degree of charity as the actual black Michelle [sorry about the misnaming] Jones who hideously murdered her child.

That is, as I said, a difficult question. I don’t think that he would have been. Maybe he should. Could you address that?

Second, what difference would it have made if his hypothetical murdered girlfriend had been black. I think it should have made no difference, but I very much doubt it wouldn’t. Could you address that?

Third, I know from personal experience that in a very reputable university the official line has been “give him a presentable PhD thesis, even if you have to write it yourself, and a one-way ticket to New Delhi”. Not my student, fortunately.

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Ssmith 09.18.17 at 8:02 pm

There are always going to be consequences for murder, both in and out of jail. This is a particularly disgusting murder…one’s own child…beating the child to death because she thinks he’s a freak. Yes, I could see someone who’s been abused themselves and young possibly doing this. But there is a big problem. Not giving your child a proper resting place is messed up but it’s apparently less messed up than what she did to the child either pre or post mortem. She hasn’t come clean.

She’s extremely lucky that any university let her in and she should be incredibly grateful. She’s lucky if she gets a high-paying job. She’s lucky to be walking around alive. The publicity and university rejection are part of the lifelong consequences of a horrific sin. She’s making the best of a tragic situation and that’s wonderful but that doesn’t mean that everything will go your way after what she did. That’s reality.

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J-D 09.18.17 at 8:05 pm

Z
http://wikidiff.com/cow/cower

Cow vs Cower – What’s the difference?

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Z 09.19.17 at 11:44 am

J-D, thanks and apologies for the malapropism (double-checks that malapropism exists, OK yes it does and Apple’s dictionary provides an amusingly wrong origin).

Sebastian H On the dark humor/racist memes thing are you punishing past action, or projected future action?

I’m not sure the language of punishment is appropriate here (not being accepted to Harvard, whether as an undergraduate or as a graduate student, is not a punishment). It seems to me that the selection committee assessed that someone who jokes about lynching Mexicans is not likely to flourish and contribute positively to the Harvard community of undergraduates; and giving such an assessment, that is to say thinking about the likely future, is precisely their task. I think one can come to their conclusion (and thus approve the rescinded of an invitation based on borderline posts) while still believing that someone who committed an atrocious crime 20 years ago can contribute positively to and flourish within the community of Harvard graduate students.

I don’t believe that having schools or workplaces policing outside ‘moral’ behavior is really a good idea. At least not with the threat of expulsion/firing.

Yep, I agree with that. In my ideal world, I can imagine much better ways to deal with immature undergraduates posting racist jokes than to expel or disinvite them (I myself witnessed how an experienced teacher reacted when she stumbled on students writing neo-nazi jokes on a blackboard, and I thought it very educational). In the real world, it seems probable to me that the Harvard admission process is fraught with spurious considerations of “moral qualities”, “dedication to the common good” and “outstanding human qualities” used to justify the influence of donors, legacies etc…. on the social selection of their pool of undergraduates that relevant people might have feared that letting this pass would expose the hypocrisy of the selection process.

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Cian O'Connor 09.19.17 at 3:00 pm

would have been allowed the same degree of charity as the actual black Michelle [sorry about the misnaming] Jones who hideously murdered her child.

The evidence that Jones hideously murdered her child isn’t really there. It rests on an alleged confession to an unreliable witness many years after the event.

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Cian O'Connor 09.19.17 at 3:04 pm

Z@82: I think you are dodging the questions. What I asked was, first, whether a hypothetical white Michael Jones, who had hideously murdered his girlfriend, would have been allowed the same degree of charity as the actual black Michelle [sorry about the misnaming] Jones who hideously murdered her child.

Can’t speak for Z, but I wouldn’t have a problem with this. 20 years is by international standards a long sentence for murder (the US is a grotesque outlier when it comes to law and order), and I don’t think it’s relevant.

You’re rather clumsy attempts to insinuate that there’s some kind of racial/sexist motive for people forgiving her is kind of interesting though.

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LFC 09.19.17 at 4:41 pm

@Z
In the real world, it seems probable to me that the Harvard admission process is fraught with spurious considerations of “moral qualities”, “dedication to the common good” and “outstanding human qualities” used to justify the influence of donors, legacies etc…. on the social selection of their pool of undergraduates that relevant people might have feared that letting this [i.e. the remarks/’jokes’ on Facebook] pass would expose the hypocrisy of the selection process.

In the 1920s (according to Karabel, referenced above), Harvard and certain other elite schools moved away from an exclusive focus on academic criteria for admission of undergrads to incorporate other considerations, because the men who ran these institutions were worried that an exclusive focus on grades and test scores was leading and would lead to the admission of too many social ‘undesirables’, which, in the context of the 1920s, mainly meant Jews of E. European descent. As Karabel points out in the intro to his book, the Protestant elite that ran these places was not of one mind on this: e.g., Charles William Eliot, at the age of 90, opposed (unsuccessfully) the move by A. Lawrence Lowell, Eliot’s successor as Harvard president, to institute a Jewish quota in admissions.

Almost a century later, non-academic considerations continue to play a role in undergraduate admissions at these places. These considerations are no doubt sometimes used to make it easier to admit favored kinds of applicants (e.g. star athletes, children of big donors, legacies, etc.), but not always. In other words, a reference to “outstanding human qualities” may indeed sometimes or often be “spurious,” to use your word, i.e., simply a cover for something else, but such a criterion might also be used to justify the admission of people who really have, in one way or another, displayed such qualities but who, if they were judged strictly on the basis of grades and test scores, wouldn’t get in. Cases in which the appeal to outstanding non-academic qualities is not spurious but genuine certainly exist (consider, e.g., the hypothetical but not far-fetched case of a young person who grew up in a depressed small town or rural area and started a social-service, or tutoring, or drug-education program in high school and whose academic accomplishments, while impressive, might not quite match the pool’s average).

Given that these institutions will likely always do much more to reproduce the society’s class structure than to transform it, and given that getting into a Harvard, which takes about 5 percent of its tens of thousands of applicants, is in many respects a roll-of-the-dice (or crap shoot) anyway, would things be better if admissions were based only on grades and test scores? Maybe, but I’m not convinced that the answer to that question is yes. (I am in favor of getting rid of legacy preferences, but that’s a different question.)

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engels 09.19.17 at 10:40 pm

Cow vs Cower – What’s the difference?

Ever tried milking a cower?

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Suzanne 09.20.17 at 4:15 pm

@90: “The evidence that Jones hideously murdered her child isn’t really there. It rests on an alleged confession to an unreliable witness many years after the event.”

And on circumstantial evidence that points to Jones. Of course, as Jones’ defense argued in her appeal, there’s no body, so it is true that an important piece of evidence “isn’t really there.” Of course, there’s no body because Jones not only wouldn’t tell the authorities where Brandon lies but misled them as to where he might be found.

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Cian O'Connor 09.21.17 at 1:01 pm

And on circumstantial evidence that points to Jones. Of course, as Jones’ defense argued in her appeal, there’s no body, so it is true that an important piece of evidence “isn’t really there.” Of course, there’s no body because Jones not only wouldn’t tell the authorities where Brandon lies but misled them as to where he might be found.

Nobody is disputing that the child is dead. The question is whether the child was murdered, as this unreliable witness claimed, or simply died through neglect/abandonment. If you think that a resident of a rehab center who claims to have heard a confession several years after an event is reliable… well I hope you’re never a juror.

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LFC 09.21.17 at 2:42 pm

Clarification: my previous reference to Karabel’s (not esp. well-titled) book The Chosen was in the other thread (on Manning and HKS), not this thread. (In case anyone was confused.)

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Suzanne 09.21.17 at 10:31 pm

@95: “The question is whether the child was murdered, as this unreliable witness claimed, or simply died through neglect/abandonment.”

The defense pointed out Dunlap’s deficiencies as a witness and apparently were not successful with the jury, presumably because, as the appellate court noted, Dunlap’s testimony was not contradictory or otherwise suspicious in itself and it tallied with the circumstantial evidence. It is true she might have been lying. The easiest way to prove that would be to examine Brandon’s remains…..oh, wait…….

I do like that “simply,” though.

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Sebastian H 09.21.17 at 11:11 pm

Circumstantial evidence is still evidence. A reasonable person could certainly lend weight to the idea that she refused to show police where the body was because it would show direct evidence of the murder she confessed. In fact I would go so far as to say that is the one of the top most likely answers.

Do you think anything in this discussion ought to turn on that fact though? She served the sentence for murder. Do you think the university should let her in to the program if she neglected her child to death but not if she actively killed him? Why get side tracked into the question if it doesn’t matter?

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kidneystones 09.22.17 at 9:04 am

Mark Lilla and Glenn Loury discuss the pitfalls of identity politics at universities.

https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/47627

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Z 09.22.17 at 9:28 am

Stephen @86 What I asked was, first, whether a hypothetical white Michael Jones, who had hideously murdered his girlfriend, would have been allowed the same degree of charity as the actual black Michelle […]I don’t think that he would have been. Maybe he should. Could you address that?

OK, I think I misunderstood the first time. The thing is, I’m often puzzled by the love the English language has with the passive form. Allowed the same degree of charity by whom? The justice system? The academic system? The general public? And what about “Could you address that?” What exactly? Whether Micheal Jones would have been treated the same (and by whom)? or maybe whether Michael Jones should have been treated the same (and, again, by whom)? On the narrow topic of the OP – that is to say, the treatment by Harvard’s graduate school – I think a hypothetical Michael Jones should have been treated better than Michelle Jones actually was in that I think the decision of the academic committee should have been respected. Whether this would have happened is indeed a difficult question, as are all hypotheticals by definition. The most salient difference between the real case and your hypothetical seems to be in the segment of the media which is potentially incensed by a graduate school admitting the candidate; in the real world, it was the right-wing media, in your hypothetical situation, I’m not sure. Whatever would have happened, I have no problem saying I believe that Harvard’s graduate program selection committee should be able to accept the white murderer of a black woman and that it would be wrong to rescind the acceptance based on the perceived likely reaction of Black Lives Matter or The Nation or whatever functional equivalent of Fox and Breitbart you think would react. What do you think?

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Z 09.22.17 at 9:39 am

LFC Cases in which the appeal to outstanding non-academic qualities is not spurious but genuine certainly exist […]

Oh I agree, and I’m even convinced that Harvard’s selection committee does identify a few of them, but I believe that at an ultra-elite institution like Harvard operating in the violently unjust North-American system of higher education, the primary functions of such cases is to serve as a justification for the whole system of social selection and reproduction, and that their (I assume very real) function of social and educative mobility (for the infinitesimal number of exceptional students they benefit to) can be considered purely incidental in first approximation.

Given that these institutions will likely always do much more to reproduce the society’s class structure than to transform it […] would things be better if admissions were based only on grades and test scores? Maybe, but I’m not convinced that the answer to that question is yes. (I am in favor of getting rid of legacy preferences, but that’s a different question.)

I think exploring the implications of your question, which I think could be generalized as “given that agents are unequally endowed with specific capital (here educative capital), how do we fairly select them?”, makes for hard sociological and ethical work. In Bourdieu’s The State Nobility (a book I cannot recommend highly enough if you haven’t read it yet), there is a footnote I am fond of which points out that given that families close to the central nexus of power will always have a disproportionate capability to inculcate to their children whatever qualities required to pass whatever selection process an élite institution can devise, modes of selection will always operate as tools of reproduction (he gives the example of Meiji Japan’s Imperial Universities entry tests which passed from Archery trials to Mathematical tests in the span of a few years while not selecting noticeably different students in terms of familial background). Nevertheless, the footnote continues, clearly defined and clearly enforced processes are probably a step in minimizing domination. For that reason alone, I see some virtue in test scores compared with applications files and assessment of “personal achievements” (and of course even more virtue in not distinguishing starkly between essentially statistically meaningless educational achievements).

So you ask a hard question in general. Still, in the particular case of Harvard within the North-American system, I don’t think it is hard at all: the whole educational system is so severely imbalanced from the start that no amount of “remedial justice” can really make a difference at the Harvard admission level.

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Suzanne 09.22.17 at 4:35 pm

@92: Legacies aren’t what they used to be in some respects. Michelle Obama was one – her brother was a star student-athlete already at Princeton ( a genuine student-athlete, not a jock in on a pass, perhaps I should note).

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J-D 09.22.17 at 9:15 pm

Z

The thing is, I’m often puzzled by the love the English language has with the passive form.

How is use of the passive in English a point of distinction from use of the passive in other languages?

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LFC 09.22.17 at 10:38 pm

Z @101
Thanks for the reference to Bourdieu’s The State Nobility (adding it to my reading list).

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LFC 09.23.17 at 3:08 am

Suzanne @102

Legacies aren’t what they used to be in some respects. Michelle Obama was one – her brother was a star student-athlete already at Princeton

1) I already made the point, somewhere upthread, about legacies no longer having the effect of keeping a class homogeneously WASP (or whatever). Indeed they haven’t had that precise effect for some decades. As I said earlier, what legacy preferences among other things do is tend (note: it’s a tendency, not an iron law) to favor applicants from more affluent backgrounds.

2) I’m not sure having a sibling already enrolled makes one a legacy applicant — I thought the ‘legacy’ label typically refers to the applicant’s parents or other older relatives who are alums — maybe that’s wrong though.

3) I’m opposed to legacy preferences partly b.c I don’t think that the function they perform for the institutions — primarily keeping some fraction of alumni happy and donations flowing — outweighs the case vs them, which is well known and wd take too long to rehash here. That said, they are only one part of a larger system, as Z’s comment @101 indicates.

I think this will be my last comment on this topic in this thread.

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Z 09.23.17 at 4:09 am

J-D How is use of the passive in English a point of distinction from use of the passive in other languages?

Implicit agent passive construction are more frequently attested and are grammatical or felt to be quite natural in a wider set of contexts than in my native language (syntactic pun intended). That’s usually fine but in argumentative texts, I sometimes find it problematic as I feel the precise meaning of the sentence may depend, even crucially, on the precise agent. If you skim back recent threads, you’ll find me querying Chris Bertram, John Holbo and now Stephen precisely on that point.

Sebastian H Do you think anything in this discussion ought to turn on that fact though? She served the sentence for murder.

My thoughts exactly on the precise details of Ms. Jones’s case.

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