The Case of Michelle Jones

September 15, 2017 2:15 p.m.

It hasn’t been the best 24 hours for Harvard University. You’ve probably heard that Harvard managed to piss almost everyone off by first extending and then rescinding a fellowship appointment to Chelsea Manning. But you may or may not have seen this article in the Times about a woman named Michelle Jones.

It is a fascinating and powerful story on many levels. Jones, now 45, just finished a 20 year stint in prison for killing her 4-year old son. It’s not entirely clear to me from the story – and I sense it was never entirely clear – whether Jones intentionally killed her son in a discreet act of violence or whether he died from some combination of physical beatings and neglect. Regardless, the ghastliness of the crime is not in dispute. Jones was originally sentenced to 50 years in prison and was released after 20 years for good behavior.

The story from there is that rare but classic case of prison redemption. Jones’ teen years included rape, pregnancy at 14, beatings by her mother and rounds of stays in group homes and with foster families. Once in prison, she went to college and eventually advanced to doing serious historical research from within prison. She was the textbook model prisoner who took every advantage to transform herself and advance herself by the measures our society claims to value. Eventually, she applied to a number of top graduate programs in anticipation of her release. Harvard accepted her but eventually rescinded the admission claiming either that she had not been fully transparent about the nature of her crime or had not dealt with it in her application in a way that showed sufficient contrition.

(For clarity on this point, there doesn’t seem any reason to think Jones concealed anything. After all, she applied from prison. The claim seems to be that she didn’t talk about it enough in her application.)

What actually seems to have happened is that Harvard’s history department accepted Jones. But the graduate school and university did not approve the offer of enrollment, despite the fact that academic departments at these universities are almost universally allowed to choose their own students. Two professors from the American Studies department wrote to the graduate school and university leaders questioning whether Jones should be admitted to Harvard and asking that the offer be reviewed and scrutinized.

Everything above is a pretty straightforward rendition of what’s contained in the article and, I think, is pretty much agreed by all the people involved. What struck me most about the article is that Harvard and particularly one of the two professors from the American Studies department were fairly candid that their trepidation was largely about what conservatives and literally what Fox News would say about accepting the admission of a woman who had killed her own child, even if she’d served the entirety of her sentence for that crime.

Here’s a passage with a quote from John Stauffer, one of the two American Studies profs …

“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “But 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.”

Reading this quote I thought, well at least he’s being candid! But these are not good reasons. Or rather, these aren’t any reasons.

These don’t seem simply to be one man’s poorly chosen words. Here’s the Times explanation of the reasoning of university administrators (emphasis added) …

While top Harvard officials typically rubber-stamp departmental admissions decisions, in this case the university’s leadership — including the president, provost, and deans of the graduate school — reversed one, according to the emails and interviews, out of concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students.

Public opinion, as well as the opinion of the various stakeholders that make up a university community, are important. They can never be ignored. That doesn’t mean you bow to it. But to turn the metaphor on its head, universities aren’t secluded off in an ivory tower. They exist in the world. They have students, alumni, donors. Especially for public universities, running afoul of public opinion in major ways can have serious consequences since a state’s political leaders have ultimate control over public educational institutions, even if the control is mediated through regents or appointed boards. But Harvard is a private institution with a $35 billion endowment. No one wants to be criticized. But Harvard probably has less vulnerability to public opinion, political interference or Fox News mau-mauing than any private institution in the US.

Are conservative alums going to refuse to send their kids to Harvard? Please.

What is so striking to me is the unwillingness or inability to make a judgment on the merits. I come down strongly on the side of thinking that we need to go to great lengths as a society to allow people to be cleansed of their civic sins post-incarceration. Still, I get that this is going to be controversial on the merits to many people. But again, even Harvard’s own collective explanation seems to be: we were afraid what people would say about us. That is just not a good reason. Some institutions need to make hard decisions about public and political backlashes. Harvard doesn’t.

The other point is this. Any college or university has to be cognizant of what students’ parents think. But Stauffer’s reference to Fox News and what the Times called Harvard’s concern about “conservative news outlets” is precisely the kind of tendentious bullying that universities are supposed to resist.

There are a million factors that go into graduate admissions. I have no way to know if Jones was the best choice for admission. But the people who axed her admission are saying from their own mouths that it was really for the worst reason.

Here’s another more delicate matter.

When I read this article I had no idea who John Stauffer was. His comment quoted above made me think he was some crusty older professor just very out of touch with contemporary discussions of race, incarceration and what I guess we’d call not being a douche. So I was a bit dumbfounded when I looked him up and saw he’s actually a historian of abolitionism and social protest movements in the 19th century.

Now, I’m trying to resist a clumsy leap of logic that holds that because Stauffer is an expert on 19th century anti-slavery politics that he should somehow be more sympathetic to this black woman. But, as Stauffer himself put it, c’mon … Race is central to this story. Race is inextricably bound up with the story of mass incarceration. Jones’ story isn’t only about race of course. She killed her own son. I’m sure there are many African-Americans who think she never should have been admitted, maybe even should be shunned for her crime. And you could be the most ‘enlightened’ white person on race and just have a different opinion about her case. But Stauffer’s actions and his words just struck me as showing a lack of cognizance and consciousness about race in America that I can only say I found jarring from a specialist on his area of study.

This was all on my brain last night when I tweeted a few comments about it generally in line with what I’ve written above. Then this morning I got this email from a reader.

Dear Josh,

I saw your tweets on Stauffer. Thought you might be interested in Mia Bay’s review of his book on abolitionism (enclosed). Her main point is he doesn’t get race. For me at least it helped put his comments in perspective.

Take care,

I can’t link the article because the reader sent me a PDF. But you can read an excerpt from it here.

It is a very good review. While I can’t judge Stauffer’s book without having read it myself, Bay makes a pretty good argument for this judgment: “Presenting an especially rich portrait of the fascinating eccentric Gerrit Smith, The Black Hearts of Men maps the friendship and political collaboration between these four men, who became acquainted in the late 1840s and who worked together in the short-lived Radical Abolition Party, which was founded in 1855. Yet this “collective biography,” which Stauffer describes “as a braiding together of four lives,” will disappoint anyone looking for either an analysis of the relationship between black and white abolitionism or for fully fleshed out portraits of all four men. Stauffer’s intensely romantic portrait of the friendship between these men stresses their commonalities rather than their differences, often obscuring the distinctions in class, race, and common sense that divided them.”

There are too many details and strands to Bay’s analysis for me to do them justice in this post. The most interesting was revisiting the differing views on political violence of Frederick Douglass and John Brown – and Stauffer’s take on them. Suffice it to say, that I came away agreeing with the reader that reading her review helped me put Stauffer’s comments in an elucidating context.

Online criticism can quickly lead to vilification in which a person is reduced to a caricature of themselves. I’m not trying to vilify Stauffer. I don’t know him or his work and I’m only responding to published accounts (inherently limited) of his role in this one case. Still, I think it is a story from which we can learn or open ourselves up to learning how our scholarship or work is related to our immediate professional lives. Anyone who’s lived in academia knows that people’s professional selves can appear jarringly dissonant with you might expect from their scholarship.  On a closer view, connections can reveal themselves. If you can access the Mia Bay review, I recommend it. You can find the full citation in the excerpt link above.

Jones just began the PhD program at NYU, another top flight graduate program. So happily the story has a happy ending for her, or perhaps rather a beginning.

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