Oh, Kyle Kashuv. I know what it’s like to make a mess in high school, and I know what it’s like to be forced to learn to clean it up.
Like Kashuv, I, too, did not get to go to Harvard at age 18. After getting straight Fs my last three semesters of high school, I received an empty diploma case at graduation, and later my GED. Dealing with the natural consequences of my homework boycott was a critical part of my growing up. Thanks to that real growth, I now have undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, where I enrolled as a junior transfer four years after my non-graduation.
As a result of my own academic resurrection, I started counseling other kids who were on a crooked path, helping them to explain their rocky backgrounds and continue in higher education. Over the last 20 years, I’ve advised hundreds of students who dropped out, flunked out, or got kicked out of high school or college. A fraction of my clients went off the rails through no fault of their own: They started failing classes after their mom died, or they missed a year of high school because they were hospitalized for an eating disorder. But most of them got into trouble because they screwed up. They decided to cheat on a test; they started selling drugs out of their dorm room; they were too drunk when they hooked up with a too-drunk partner and were found responsible for sexual assault. In 2017, after Harvard rescinded the acceptances of 10 students for posting offensive memes to a private Facebook group, some of them became my clients.
Truth be told, the kids who are to blame for their own misfortune are my favorite students to work with. Seeing the growth and enlightenment that many of these students gain from grappling with their new reality is the greatest joy of my professional life. Which is why I know that Harvard made the right call to rescind Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance.
Kashuv is the Parkland survivor who rose to prominence as a conservative activist and gun-rights proponent in the wake of the shooting. He was admitted to Harvard College in the spring, but then, in May, HuffPost published screenshots of Google Docs in which Kashuv had waxed poetic about his love of typing the N-word, using it more than 10 times in a space meant for sharing Advanced Placement history study notes. He also used the word in texts referring to a classmate’s taste in men. This week, Harvard revoked Kashuv’s acceptance. In response, Kashuv tweeted images of his correspondence with Harvard, adding his own commentary about how Harvard, of all places, should understand that people and institutions can change and grow. “Throughout its history,” Kashuv wrote, “Harvard’s faculty has included slave owners, segregationists, bigots and antisemites. If Harvard is suggesting that growth isn’t possible and that our past defines our future, then Harvard is an inherently racist institution. But I don’t believe that.”
Kashuv is not alone in viewing Harvard’s decision as a judgment against the possibility of redemption. Ben Shapiro, David Brooks, and Reason’s Robby Soave have all made the same point in recent days. But these people have it backward. Kashuv has a shot at redemption because Harvard revoked his acceptance. Consequences and redemption are not in tension. In fact, they go hand in hand.
To argue that we should not be judged for what we do in our teens is to argue that we shouldn’t have selective college admissions at all—a defensible position, but not one that any of these commentators hold. Past performance is the only tool we have to predict future performance. If, instead of using the N-word with his classmates in AP U.S. History, Kashuv had mouthed off to the teacher and gotten an F, he would never have gotten into Harvard in the first place, no matter how much he’d learned and changed since then. To have a chance of getting into Harvard as a freshman, you have to show that you used your last four years better than the competition used theirs. We now see that Kashuv did not use his time as well as the competition, so he can’t go to Harvard.
But Harvard is not saying who is or isn’t capable of change. It is saying that Kashuv hasn’t earned his redemption yet. If there’s any hope that he can become a better man, it will be through a path where he pays the inherent cost of his actions. If you act like a racist jerk, then the best organizations won’t want you around. Kashuv casting himself as the victim of an unforgiving and hypocritical society serves as sad proof that the growth he claims to have experienced hasn’t happened yet.
I don’t readily write off young people, no matter what they’ve done. All wise adults were once foolish kids. The right consequence serves as a lasting reminder to do the work of continuing change. The recovery world calls this a “moment of clarity.” In my experience, most students who face expulsion or multiyear suspension feel it deeply. My work with them requires them to examine their actions from a fresh reader’s perspective; to push back against the temptation to place blame on others; to prove, not just to announce, that they are working to change. They have to disclose the worst thing they’ve ever done or the worst thing they’ve ever been accused of. When they eventually earn spots at a new college through this process, they value that school and their place in it in a whole new way.
This is why it’s important to distinguish between the consequence of losing out on Harvard and the consequence of losing out on college altogether. I don’t support the latter for anyone, including felons, and I do not expect that Kashuv will face it. (I do worry that Harvard’s peers may view Kashuv’s recent tweetstorm as an attempt to deflect blame, and thus as an update on Kashuv’s current level of insight. If, on the other hand, Kashuv’s goals have shifted away from the Ivy League and toward a career in the national outrage industry, he’s played his hand perfectly.)
As far as Harvard’s interests here, black Harvardians have plenty to say about the overt racial hostility they’ve faced from the worst of their classmates. Harvard’s refusal to knowingly subject them to more of the same is just the kind of concrete anti-racist action Kashuv needs to think about when considering how his conduct impacts the people around him.
I hope that this young man takes the opportunity to grasp the seriousness of his wrongdoing and comes to see the justice of this outcome. I fear that, instead, the white nationalist crowd is going to bestow on him martyr status, with predictable results.