Administration’s Rejection of Formerly Incarcerated Student a Loss for the Harvard Community

As two graduate students new to the Harvard community, we came to Harvard for the same reasons many students did: a passion for inquiry, a desire to pursue excellent and truthful research, and a conscientious hope to work with integrity in the public interest.

We both previously worked for the City of New York, and during that time we helped run an organization teaching competitive debate on Rikers Island, the Rikers Debate Project.

We are dismayed to read about the Graduate School of Arts and Science’s acceptance — and subsequent rejection — of prospective history Ph.D. candidate Michelle Jones. Scholars such as Michelle Jones are most certainly, in the words of Harvard President Drew Faust, among the “most talented students and faculty” this university claims it must “attract and support.” The Department of History agreed, until Harvard’s top brass seemingly thought otherwise.

Jones, a published scholar who overcame immense odds while behind bars to merely apply to Harvard, served more than two decades in prison; she has been released and has served her time. As the prosecutor who put her away for twenty years said: “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.”

It is a shame that we will not be able to learn from, and along with, Michelle Jones at our University.

The time we spent teaching debate classes and running tournaments on Rikers inspired us to apply to our graduate programs. We witnessed the resiliency of our students as they learned and grew in the most challenging of environments. Our students brought an enthusiasm and energy to debate class that we had never previously felt.

One of the earliest debate topics we covered was prosecutorial immunity. As we discussed common arguments on each side, Sam, one of our regular students, questioned our assumptions at every turn, bringing in lived experience and empirical evidence. The following week he had prepared, before class, pages of additional arguments and ideas to make his case and fill the gaps he identified in our mapping of the issue—literally addressing what we failed to bring to the table. In the Rikers Debate Project, all students argue both sides of every issue, and Sam impressed us every week with his effective arguments against the sides he personally believed.

Through working with Sam, we learned anew, and perhaps more deeply, about the importance of reasoned skepticism and independent inquiry. As students who are here to think about, develop, and implement legal and policy solutions that give people more economic opportunity and better political representation, the power of Sam’s story — and questioning racialized, mythic narrative that justifies putting people like Sam behind bars — is a critical part of that process.

One of our most active students at the women’s facility, Rose, struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. Rose was eager to speak and debate in front of her classmates each week about whatever topic we were covering, from bail reform and drug law issues to the philosophical underpinnings of voluntary human extinction. After serving her sentence, she joined our staff team at the Rikers Debate Project to help inform our policy and advocacy efforts around substance abuse and responses to the opioid epidemic. Her personal experiences and bold, innovative ideas for reform made her the best person for the job. Why have we chosen to prevent expertise and worldview from being a part of the conversation here at Harvard?

Sam and Rose, as well as countless other formerly incarcerated people across the country, have unique and important ideas and experiences that must be reflected in our student community. Here at Harvard, if we are going to actively silence and exclude voices like Sam’s and Rose’s, and voices like Michelle Jones’s, how can we cultivate a campus where the greatest minds and change-makers come together to innovate, criticize, and improve society? Harvard loses any foundation for thought leadership and moral authority with decisions like these.

We all would have learned so much from, and by critically engaging with, Michelle Jones. Harvard’s History Department understood this. It is a shame to think that she and perhaps others will miss out on the Harvard experience. But just as importantly, what a shame to realize that we will lose out on the opportunity to learn from them. Jones represents a community of potential activists, practitioners, academics, and movement leaders who can lead from experience and make this world, with all its challenges, a bit more just.

Pseudonyms are used for debate students on Rikers Island.

Stefan Norgaard is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Radhe Patel is a 1L.