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Here’s What’s Happening with Harvard and Kyle Kashuv

Typically, the status of your college application is not national news.

But when the college is Harvard, the student is Kyle Kashuv—a prominent teen conservative activist from Parkland (yes, that Parkland) who has met the President, and when the outcome of his application touches on the raging culture war surrounding politics and college campuses, then yes, it becomes national news.

Harvard’s decision to rescind Kashuv’s admission made major headlines on Monday. And since the whole situation involves moving parts and an-already-well-underway social media backlash, we’ve created a guide for you.

Who is Kyle Kashuv?

Kashuv is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—the school that experienced the tragic shooting in 2018 that then lead to the national “March for Our Lives” movement.

Kashuv is himself a survivor of the shooting at the school, and he became famous for opposing gun control measures after the attack. He became the high school outreach director for the conservative group Turning Point USA, and lobbied in favor of a federal “school safety” bill that attempts to address the school shooting problem without gun control. He also notably has a large Twitter following.

These noteworthy extracurriculars, together with good grades and high SAT scored, earned Kashuv admission to Harvard earlier this year. However, in late May, a series of offensive comments he made roughly two years came to light. The comments include the repeated use of the n-word in private chats and Google Doc chats, as well as other racist remarks.

Harvard reacts

Kashuv, remember, is not a nobody. He’s a survivor of a tragic school shooting that spurred a national movement of young people to get engaged in the public discourse around gun control—and he is well known for opposing gun control.

Harvard undertook a formal review of Kashuv’s admission. On Monday morning, Kashuv tweeted out a letter from Harvard stating that his admission had been formally rescinded.

Everyone reacts

His thread on Twitter, which included a blow-by-blow account of his efforts to address the problem and restore his admission, went viral. By Monday afternoon, his name was trending on Twitter, and the conservative media was running with allegations of liberal bias in academia.

The issue has quickly become a politically polarizing one, as it may be assumed.

Conservatives are largely seeing Kashuv’s actions through a sympathetic light. It was a personal failing on behalf of a younger teen, one who hadn’t yet gone through the tragedy of the Parkland shooting, which he asserts shaped and changed him. For those holding this view, the real threat isn’t the racist comments—which can be overcome—but the impulse to punish people for them. If you penalize people for every past politically incorrect comment, the logic goes, then people will have no room to grow.

Liberals, on the other hand, see racism as a structural problem that is reflected both in social institutions and deeply ingrained. These biases are firm and can lead even people who believe in ideals of equal treatment to act or speak in prejudiced ways. Addressing the consequences of racism requires work, effort and vigilance.

Through this lens, Kashuv looks less like a kid who made youthful mistakes and more like a young man who’s trying to escape responsibility for his actions, and his attempt to minimize his comment by saying they were designed for shock value is part of the problem. “Ironic” racism is still real racism; the fact that the comments are roughly two years old isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Harvard policy

Whatever your opinions may be about this, Harvard’s admissions policy didn’t target Kashuv specifically. The university’s actions are consistent with its past decisions to enforce a blanket rule about offensive social media use by prospective students. In 2017, Harvard rescinded 10 other students’ admissions, after it found they were participating in a Facebook group that involved swapping racist and anti-Semitic memes.

However, these other 10 students didn’t become martyrs for the cause like Kyle Kashuv. Their names didn’t trend on twitter or get defended in major conservative publications.

What makes the Kashuv case so volatile is the confluence of these factors: not just that he said some racist things in the past, but also that he’s a visible conservative with a national platform who’s answering for his actions to a university.

When all is said and done, it’s likely that Kashuv will end up attending a different elite university. But his case bears considering, for the cultural elements and political issues it touches upon.

See also: Harvard Dean Under Fire for Representing Harvey Weinstein
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Harvard Dean Under Fire for Representing Harvey Weinstein

A Dean at Harvard has come under fire for agreeing to represent Harvey Weinstein in the producer’s highly publicized sexual assault case.

Law Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is the director of Harvard’s criminal law clinic. His law career is impressive—Sullivan has helped to overturn scores of wrongful convictions and free thousands from wrongful incarceration, a professional record which has made him a highly sought-after defense attorney.

However, his other professional hat—that of faculty dean at Harvard’s Winthrop House—has recently come into conflict with his law career. Students on campus are calling for his resignation after learning that he will represent Harvey Weinstein as a part of the producer’s defense team.

Around 50 students demanded that Sullivan be removed as Dean at a demonstration last week outside the president’s office on Harvard Yard. Some wore tape covering their mouths. They held signs that read, “Your Silence is Violence,” “Remove Sullivan” and “Harvard’s Legacy Ignoring Survivors.” A Change.org petition has already gathered around 300 signatures, and anti-Sullivan graffiti has also appeared on campus buildings.

In defense of the defense team

The situation has garnered national media attention, with major newspapers weighing in on the issue. In an opinion piece published by The Atlantic, journalist Conor Friedersdorf noted that “…if enough attorneys ‘feel the need to think twice… there will be no distinction between a trial by public opinion and a trial in a court of law.’”

The right to representation is a tradition older than the nation itself. The Boston Globe asked what would have happened in 1770 if Harvard students had demanded that the administration remove the privileges of John Adams, the founding father and Harvard graduate who defended the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre.

Famously, Adams took the case to illustrate the principle of innocent until proven guilty and to illustrate the integrity of the nascent nation’s legal system. “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished,” Adams said.

“But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘Whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizens that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

Political correctness culture

Some argue that students demanding Sullivan’s resignation is another indicator of the new climate that has been sweeping across college campuses in America—one that has professors prefacing their lectures with “trigger warnings” and stopped popular comedians like Chris Rock from performing.

This new climate presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche with its main goal that of protecting students from psychological harm. Often called by the media a “resurgence of PC culture,” it is somewhat more restrictive than the movement from the 1980s and ‘90s, which sought to specifically rein in hate speech and challenge the literary, philosophical and historical canon to include more diverse perspectives.

Harvard has had faculty lawyers represent notorious defendants before—perhaps most notably, attorney and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz for O.J. Simpson’s legal defense in 1995. (Notably, Dershowitz this week joined Weinstein’s defense as well.) Those critical of the new campus climate are asking, shouldn’t a defense lawyer be allowed to defend? What’s different between 1995 and today?

After #MeToo, everything matters more

Perhaps it is not so much Sullivan’s choice to join the defense team of a generally unpopular subject, as that he is joining the defense team of a person now singularly identified as the face of sexual malevolence.

This episode “displays the intensity of the anger at sexual malfeasance and the institutional indifference that has allowed such misconduct,” wrote The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Anger is warranted” as “sexual harassment and assault are all too prevalent and prohibitions against them remain all too ineffective.”

Students are seeing Sullivan joining Weinstein’s defense team not as a professional decision undertaken with the workings of the legal system in mind, but as a symbolic choice in an age where sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. And the Ivy League has endured its fair share of accusations. The documentary The Hunting Ground criticized Harvard—among other universities—for failing to protect students from sexual assault on campus. And an analysis by the Washington Post in 2016 found that Harvard was in the top 10 schools in the country with the highest total of rape reports on campus.

“Sullivan has failed to address the incongruity of his two roles—defending Weinstein in his role as defense attorney, while simultaneously working to promote a safe and comfortable environment for victims of sexual misconduct and assault in his capacity as faculty dean,” wrote the Crimson Editorial Board in an opinion piece. “We condemn his choice to represent Weinstein and urge him to address the tension between the two roles more directly than he previously has.”

In response to students’ concerns, Harvard administrators have launched a “climate review” to gauge the opinions of Winthrop House residents on the matter. No other action has been taken for the time being.

See also: Sylvia Plath’s “Newly Discovered” College Story