The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Harvard has betrayed its mission to educate

The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass.
The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

There are two Harvards. Regrettably, they have less and less to do with each other, and that’s a dangerous harbinger for higher education.

Harvard College is the undergraduate school of great renown with its bright-eyed young students and picturesque red brick. It is the college of presidents, from John Adams to John F. Kennedy; of thinkers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry Louis Gates Jr. It is sleek shells on the Charles River and the world’s refinement distilled to a five-foot shelf of books. Most of all, in today’s world, the college is a golden ticket bestowed on roughly 1 of every 20 determined young applicants, marking them with a glory they will wear for the rest of their lives.

Then there is another, larger Harvard, an epitome of the 21st-century research university — vast, calculating and acquisitive. This Harvard is an amalgam of laboratories, hospitals, institutes and professional schools (not to mention stock holdings, real estate developments, spinoff enterprises and other private equity). Its assets and revenue are measured in the billions and are subject to the Darwinian imperatives of growth.

The relative priority of these two Harvards was plain from a couple of seemingly unrelated news items in recent days. The many tentacled university stretched an arm into the Boston real estate industry, asking for proposals to build phase one of Harvard’s long-sought Enterprise Research Campus. When complete, the ERC will encompass close to 1 million square feet of offices, apartments, hotel rooms and retail shops. Making this dream a reality has been top of mind for multiple Harvard presidents — not least the newest boss, Lawrence Bacow, who made his bones as founder of the real estate institute at MIT’s business school.

While the president was expanding the university’s empire, at Harvard College the dean of admissions was making an ill-considered decision to rescind a young man’s acceptance to the Class of 2023. Kyle Kashuv, one of the outspoken survivors of the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was shown to have used racial epithets in a closed social media setting during his sophomore or junior year in high school. Despite the boy’s abject apology, the dean ruled that “candor and expressions of regret” were insufficient evidence of Kashuv’s “maturity and moral character,” which Harvard College requires of its students.

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What a missed opportunity. Not even the most pompous administrator could claim with a straight face that no matriculating student at Harvard ever uttered a hurtful word. What doomed Kashuv was that his knuckleheaded moments were preserved in tidy digital packets to be turned against him. He is part of the vanguard of humans raised in the iPhone Age, for whom every mistake, offense and poor decision of childhood potentially lasts forever.

In the future, with better technology and wiser mentoring, young people may regain some of their lost privacy, and with it the luxury of forgiveness while learning from mistakes. But in the right-now, Harvard booted an important chance to breathe sanity into the madness.

And we need more sanity. Which brings me to the danger of these two Harvards. I don’t think this would have happened if the real Harvard were paying as much attention to undergraduate education as it pays to real estate developments. The decision to bounce an apologetic student over a sophomoric mistake betrays a lack of intellectual confidence in that original mission. It’s not the job of Harvard College, properly understood, to certify a relative handful of perfect human specimens and train them in the proper expression of approved ideas. Education is about improvement; it is rooted in the faith that errors can become resources, ignorance can be enlightened, horizons can be expanded. Improvement is the value from which learning derives its moral character.

And yet, rather than express confidence that a Harvard education would improve Kashuv, the college timidly acted as though his presence might drag down the rest of the class. But if that’s a remotely real possibility, then Harvard College is peddling some awfully weak medicine. (Harvard says it won’t comment on individual admissions decisions.)

No doubt, it is rewarding to look on a skyline full of cranes or to contemplate a faculty bursting with start-up millionaires. But every bit as urgent for the university — and for society — is figuring out, and boldly asserting, the purpose of a 21st-century education.

Harvard College must be more to the university than a marketing tool or a branding exercise — a little bit Ralph Lauren, a little bit Harry Potter. It cannot be reduced to the clamor for admission by some 40,000 of the world’s best students or the glamour such exclusivity reflects on the whole gigantic enterprise.

Harvard College matters too much to American society to be a mere display for the university. With its nearly 400 years of prestige, the smaller Harvard — the original Harvard — represents an idealized version of an optimistic creed: Education can refine rough promise into valuable citizenry. And that matters more than the next hotel.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Sure, Kyle Kashuv deserves some sympathy. But the consequences make sense.

Robert J. Samuelson: Here’s how to fix the college admissions system. Warning: You might hate this.

Meghan Kruger: We shouldn’t be doing more on college admissions. We should be doing less.

Anthony Abraham Jack: I was a first-generation college student at an elite college. The admissions scandal reopens old wounds.