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Harvard's Cowardly Rejection Of Michelle Jones

In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, a tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University. (Elise Amendola/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, a tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University. (Elise Amendola/AP)

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Only the greatest of our writers have done justice to portraying mothers who murder their children. There’s Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, "Beloved," a novel in which Sethe cuts her daughter’s throat to spare her a life as a slave. Or, dating back millennia, Bacchae or Medea by Euripides. In all these works, the reader trembles with horror — and compassion.

Does any other crime touch our terror and rage as deeply?

I begin with great literature as a way to outline the territory we enter when we talk about Michelle Jones, the woman who murdered her 4-year-old son and served 20 years of a 50-year prison term in Indiana. She was released last month because of her good behavior and her educational attainment.

Thanks to the extraordinary quality of the history research she and several peers conducted (in inconceivably adverse circumstances), they won the Indiana state historical society prize. Jones applied to several graduate schools and was almost admitted to Harvard’s history Ph.D. program — until suddenly she wasn’t. Instead, she is starting at NYU next month.

Several Harvard professors (mostly female) supported her admission, and she would have been matriculating this autumn had two history professors (male) not complained to the administration, who then stepped in and nixed her admission.

This decision is a travesty. A woman (terribly abused, impregnated at 14 in what she has labeled as non-consensual sex) spent 20 years in prison as punishment for her horrific act. The prison authorities, rarely known for undue generosity, decided that she had done her time.

As a therapist, I might work with someone for months or years before I would even consider probing such an unbearable personal event.

Yet apparently the professors thought it righteous to retry her case themselves? They faulted her personal statement for not dwelling enough on the details of her crime. In their memo to the administration, Professors John Stauffer and Dan Carpenter wrote “that ‘honest and full narration is an essential part of our enterprise,’ and questioned whether Jones had met that standard in framing her past.”

Really? Other than needlessly humiliating her and making her suffer, what would be the point of having her retell her crime? As a therapist, I might work with someone for months or years before I would even consider probing such an unbearable personal event. We’d have to have built up a lot of trust. And the professors feel it should just be splattered onto an admissions form? Were their youthful applications measured by a similar standard of honest narration? I doubt it.

I appreciate that schools have good reason to assess the character of applicants. But if understanding more about the person they might be admitting had been their intent, the administrators or professors could have flown to Indiana to interview Jones, or spoken at greater length to the people in the prison system who knew her well. They could have suggested she wait a year to matriculate until she had an opportunity to adjust to life “outside.”

The idea that people can do terrible things — and then be able to start over is a basic principle of a just and humane society. Otherwise, why not just insist on the death penalty for any person who commits a serious crime? Unfortunately, we are increasingly leaving behind this crucial opportunity. Whether you’re a felon who can’t vote or work once you’re released, or a sexual offender whose name is on a public list indefinitely, we seem increasingly to feel entitled to punish people forever.

It suggests the vaunted Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences let itself be intimidated by a fourth-rate, dishonest television network and a bunch of imaginary trolls.

The purpose of punishment is both societal: to keep others safe and to restore social order by extracting retribution for transgression; and personal: to make criminals grapple with their deeds, and to rehabilitate them to re-enter society. When it departs from these purposes it becomes dehumanizing and sadistic. It denies our commonality.

Where is the professors’ compassion? Where is their curiosity about the complexity of someone else’s life? Where is their sense of, “There but for the grace of God go I”?

It turns out the demand for a “full” narrative is a smoke screen for other motives: “[F]rankly,” said Professor John Stauffer, “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.”

Please parse “c’mon?” and “happened to be a minority?” His simplistic gloss — which asserts that something is obvious when it is not — is crass at best. It seems they and the administrators were afraid to admit her because it would be difficult. It suggests the vaunted Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences let itself be intimidated by a fourth-rate, dishonest television network and a bunch of imaginary trolls.

More’s the pity. Had Harvard stood up publicly for the importance of supporting Jones as a scholar, and had they taken the heat, and not backed down, they might have helped our country hold onto its better angels.

The essential justification for the liberal arts is that studying subjects like history, literature and art will inform us about a larger world — will expand our minds, our hearts and our souls so that we can bear more complexity. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, some at Harvard apparently “had the experience but missed the meaning.”

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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