Criminal Justice

Harvard University's Shameful Rejection of Michelle Jones Shows Just How Far We Have to Go


Harvard's Widener Library. Photo courtesy of QuarterCircleS/Wikimedia Commons

Harvard University made big news this week for rescinding acceptance letters to a student and a teaching fellow.

Chelsea Manning, who CIA Director Mike Pompeo referred to as a "traitor," was slated to spend a day as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School. Former acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell resigned his fellowship at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in protest. Pompeo followed by dropping out of a Harvard forum.

In response, Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf rescinded Manning's fellowship in an open letter, insisting he had failed to strike the right balance between "what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person's visit against the extent to which that person's conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire." If studying the hair-splitting of academic bureaucrats is your thing, you can read Elmendorf's entire retreat here.

My only thought on the matter is this: I can't take seriously any academic institution that believes Corey Lewandowski (whose neighbors allege in legal filings that he cut off their electricity and threatened them while wielding a baseball bat) and Sean Spicer (a throne-sniffing yes-man) "fulfill the values of public service to which we aspire." Manning and the Trumpkins are apples and oranges, but if she's rotten fruit, they are, too.

I'd rather discuss the student who recently had her Harvard acceptance revoked, Michelle Jones, an Indiana woman who served 20 years of a 50-year sentence for murdering her four-year-old son.

When Jones became pregnant at 14 as the result of a rape, her mother beat her in the abdomen. Jones gave birth to a son she named Brandon. She spent most of her teen years in foster care, suffered domestic violence, and became an abuser herself. At 18, she severely beat Brandon and left him alone in an apartment for several days. When she returned, finding him dead, she buried the body and told no one until several years later, when seeking help at a mental health crisis center.

If that's all Harvard knew about Jones you might understand why she won't be pursuing her PhD in history there. But thanks to some gut-wrenching reporting by Eli Hager with The Marshall Project, we know much more.

Jones became what's known as a "model prisoner," a term d'art in the criminal justice world for prisoners who do on the inside what they often couldn't on the outside: learn useful skills, seek treatment for their mental health issues, abide by the rules, and engage in pro-social behavior.

Despite having little access to the outside world, Jones became a scholar of women's incarceration, doggedly investigating the crimes for which women were incarcerated in the 19th century and what happened to them behind bars. She was able to obtain a bachelor's degree, and led a team of prisoners on an award-winning research project.

All that, combined with otherwise sterling behavior, led the prosecutor who convicted her to recommend an early release from prison to pursue a PhD in history. Her first choice was Harvard.

And, initially, Harvard chose her, too. Jones "was one of the strongest candidates in the country last year, period," Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton told Hager. But after she was accepted, a group of professors banded together with university administrators to reverse the decision. They feared, according to Hager, Jones acceptance "would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students."

Meanwhile, criminal justice advocates, historians, and Jones's prosecutor went on the record praising her credentials as a PhD candidate and decrying Harvard's decision to punish her for a second time. "I'm the prosecutor, not them," former prosecutor Marger Moore said of Harvard's decision. "Michelle Jones served her time, and she served a long time, exactly what she deserved. A sentence is a sentence."

Now Jones will do her scholarship at New York University.

"One of our considerations," Harvard Prof. John Stauffer told Hager, "was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much."

At another point in the interview, Stauffer gives Hager a very different answer: "Frankly, 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."

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of Jones' accomplishment. We make prisoners sleep in cages, do menial work for nickels and dimes, and stand up and sit down on command. We neutralize their individuality by dressing them identically and referring to them by government-assigned numbers. We let them see and talk to their families only under intense surveillance. In many facilities, we provide inadequate health care and menial education and job training opportunities, and turn a blind eye to the physical and emotional abuse they endure at the hands of correctional officers and other prisoners. Yet we expect that upon their release these prisoners will not just behave better, but be better than they were when they committed their crimes.

Jones could be forgiven for failing under all those circumstances, yet she exceeded the wildest expectations of the biggest bleeding heart you'll ever meet. And she did so under the cloud of a sentence that could have kept her in prison for the rest of her life.

There's no connection between the Manning and Jones decision. But while the former is a product of some rather shallow thinking, the Jones decision reflects stunning cowardice from an institution that should know better. After all, Harvard already held the dual distinction of being the first medical school in the United States to admit black students and women, and the first to rescind their acceptances to school after an outcry from critics.

In 1850, Harvard Medical School admitted Harriet Hunt, Martin Delany, Daniel Laing, Jr., and Isaac H. Snowden, the first woman and the first three black men to be allowed to study medicine at America's most prestigious institution. But the more reactionary wings of the university didn't like how it looked or what people might say. Under pressure, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. concluded the four could not study at Harvard because they didn't look like the people who attended the school at the time, which was also true at every other medical school in America.

On paper, Jones also does not look like anyone currently studying at Harvard. That raises some important questions for the tens of millions of people who have passed through our criminal justice system, many of them after surviving abusive childhoods. If Jones and people like her are not qualified to study at Harvard after serving their sentences and changing their lives, what makes them qualified to study at any other elite institution?

What makes them qualified to receive a PhD at all, if Harvard's decision to rescind this opportunity was not based on Jones' scholarship–which no one, on or off the record, has questioned–but her past? Just as there's no reason why a former drug dealer can't get a cosmetology license, there's no good argument for precluding an adult woman 20 years removed from a crime she committed from being a humanities professor.

I doubt the university will suffer much blowback for rejecting Jones, particularly with the Manning fiasco unfolding. But the former decision is far more egregious. It is an affront to those at the university who are committed to justice reform, and to the alumni working to change the way we think about crime. One of those is Harvard Law's Bryan Stevenson, who likes to say that "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." This is as true for Jones as it is for a petty thief.

"I have made a commitment to myself and [Brandon] that with the time I have left, I will live a redeemed life, one of service and value to others," Jones reportedly wrote in her application. To Harvard's shame, she will make good on that promise somewhere else.