Last week, the news broke that Harvard administrators shamefully overrode the History Department’s decision to admit Michelle Jones, a formerly incarcerated woman, into its doctoral program. In a comment as revealing as it is reprehensible, one of the professors who urged university administrators to override the history department’s decision expressed to the New York Times the concern that “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.”
We, the student board members of the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, condemn this decision. At a time when questions surrounding mass incarceration and prisoner reintegration are moving to the forefront of public discourse, Harvard should be ashamed of itself for its regressive move. Ms. Jones spent 20 years behind bars for her crime; she paid her debt to society. The administration should not be in the business of doling out further punishment, particularly where Ms. Jones, against considerable odds, was able to make herself into one of “strongest candidates in the country” while incarcerated.
Law students in the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project represent dozens of incarcerated people every year in administrative hearings, and we assist dozens more by mail and phone. Every time we visit a client, we enter a “correctional” facility – so named because our society aspires to see incarcerated people become rehabilitated while they serve time. Much could be said about how and why we fall well short of that goal, but we refuse to remain silent when Harvard fails to recognize a true success story. Incarcerated people are more than their crimes. We understand that people deserve second chances.
As Harvard Law School celebrates its bicentennial, the slogan “moved to question, prepared to reason, called to act” has appeared all over campus. We are indeed moved to question the administration’s actions in this case. We see little reason in the decision to overrule the history department based on an applicant’s criminal conviction, and to sit in judgment without even giving Ms. Jones an opportunity to respond, as apparently happened here. We will continue to act, by standing up for the rights of the most disadvantaged members of our society – both those behind bars and the ones that Harvard disgracefully mistreats.
Ms. Jones was prosecuted, sentenced, and served her time. It is not the place of Harvard administrators to retry her and impose additional punishment. This is a shameful abuse of administrative power. Just as we are called to act, we call on President Faust and each of the administrators involved to act. First, before deciding that twenty years is an insufficient punishment, visit a prison. Meet with some incarcerated people. Second, issue an apology to Ms. Jones. Third, establish scholarships for formerly incarcerated students who prove that, like Ms. Jones, they belong at Harvard just as much as anyone else.