Harvard’s About-Face on Michelle Jones’s Acceptance

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In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.

Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.

While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.

“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”

Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.

“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?

“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.

Jones will be attending New York University instead.

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