Kyle Kashuv was already famous before he got accepted to Harvard. Kashuv survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year and then became a nationally prominent gun-rights activist, setting himself apart from classmates like David Hogg, now a nationally prominent gun control activist, who was also accepted by Harvard. This week, Kashuv became even more famous: He announced Monday that his acceptance to the school has been rescinded.
Harvard reserves wide latitude to revoke a prospective student’s acceptance over behavior that calls into question his or her “honesty, maturity, or moral character.” Just two years ago, for example, the school revoked 10 students’ admission for allegedly trading racist and sexist memes in a private group chat. In late May, a classmate of Kashuv’s posted screenshots online of a group Google document and text messages in which he used racist language repeatedly and casually. After the school asked for and received an explanation—Kashuv later tweeted screenshots of the correspondence—its admissions committee voted to rescind Kashuv’s offer. Conservative pundits quickly leapt to Kashuv’s defense this week, arguing that while his comments were appalling, Harvard’s backtracking was a disturbing example of unforgiving progressive “cancel culture.” David Brooks lamented that Harvard had rejected “a kid who is intellectually rigorous and morally humble.” David French announced the episode as proof that we’re living in a “post-forgiveness America.” Ben Shapiro tweeted that Harvard had erected “an insane, cruel standard no one can possibly meet” and called the school “gutless.”
But when I spoke to a bunch of conservative students at Harvard, I found them to be not nearly as indignant. “How much can you change as a person in two years?” asked Emily Shoemaker, a rising junior who is involved with a campus anti-abortion group and the John Adams Society, a conservative debate club. She said she is still figuring out exactly what to think about the situation. She’s given pause by the fact that Kashuv’s racist rant was seemingly only revealed because a classmate disagreed with his politics on an unrelated issue. But, she added, “Harvard has the right to decide who meets their moral standard.”
Oluwatobi Ariyo, a rising sophomore, said he had been looking forward to having a prominent conservative activist like Kashuv on campus. Ariyo wrote an op-ed for the Harvard Crimson this year about his experiences as a “lone conservative” on campus, in which he called for greater ideological diversity at Harvard. When he first heard about the administration’s reversal, he was “outraged.” But after talking it over with friends, and thinking about how he would have felt as a black man in class with Kashuv, Ariyo changed his mind. “Harvard was put in a very tough spot,” he said. “Do we want to forgive him and risk multiple other students feeling uncomfortable, or do we make this one student uncomfortable?” he said. “I think Harvard made the right choice.”
Kashuv’s would-be fellow students, as it turns out, are more attuned to the impact Kashuv’s presence might have on the campus community than distant opinion writers are. Ariyo’s friend Blake Barclay said he, too, had initially been inclined to feel outrage on Kashuv’s behalf. Then he read Kashuv’s “disgusting” comments, which included typing the N-word 11 times in a row. “They’re not very old—they happened while he was in high school,” Barclay said. “All colleges are clear that everything you do in high school is taken into account in admissions. He should have known that they would be taken into account, and he should have known not to say things like that.” Kashuv seems “very confrontational,” Barclay added: “I’m not sure how well he would have adjusted.”
The national conservative outrage over Kashuv’s rejection was fueled by Harvard’s notoriety as the “Kremlin on the Charles,” as Richard Nixon famously put it. For decades, the school has served as a symbol of East Coast establishment liberalism. Self-described “born-again American”—and future Republican congressman—John LeBoutillier titled a 1978 book-length jeremiad Harvard Hates America. That reputation wasn’t conjured from nothing. A Harvard Crimson survey of last year’s freshman class found that just 12 percent identified as conservative, while 64 percent identified as liberal. The split among faculty is even more pronounced, with less than 2 percent identifying as conservative in a survey last year.
But the students I spoke with said their experiences as ideological minorities on campus have been occasionally annoying, but not extreme. The school has a robust, if small-ish, conservative social scene. There’s the John Adams Society, a conservative student newspaper, several religious clubs that skew conservative, and a robust anti-abortion club. There’s an active Republican Club (which in 2016 declined to endorse the Republican candidate for president for the first time since its founding in 1888). The Anscombe Society, formerly known as True Love Revolution, promotes “the traditional perspective” on sexuality issues. The Harvard College Open Campus Initiative, founded in 2017 and devoted to “support for freedom of thought, speech and association,” has invited speakers to campus including Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray.
“The media might portray it as more liberal than it is,” Shoemaker said of the school. “We’re not being crucified daily. We’re a presence on campus. Our clubs get funding from Harvard. They’re not trying to stop our existence.” Barclay agreed. “It’s not easy to be a conservative at Harvard,” he said, “but it’s not horribly difficult, either.”
I found only one conservative student who tilted toward sympathy for Kashuv, and even he couldn’t muster the fury displayed by the adult pundit class. “I feel bad for him,” said Joe Barisas, a rising junior, who described Kashuv’s rejection as “a loss” because Kashuv would have brought an interesting perspective on gun control to campus. Barisas said that high school kids—especially boys—say a lot of awful things in private, and he believes people are capable of radical change. But he also acknowledged that Kashuv is a nationally famous activist, which meant the whole incident played out in public and subjected the school to unusual scrutiny that likely would have led to protests if Kashuv had been welcomed on campus. “I don’t know,” he said, “if Harvard could have done anything else.”
This piece has been updated with additional context for one student’s description of Kashuv’s rejection as “a loss.”