An Actual Letter Sent to the New York Times in 1995

This letter references news events described here and here. The Times actually published a letter, which had arrived slightly before mine, which made the same basic comparison as mine, but did not take the idea as far as I did.

The Editor: Op-Ed Page
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
18 April 1995

To the Editor:

I most humbly submit the following piece, entitled "For Harvard, A Double Standard -- and a Solution?" for publication on your Op-Ed page. Although I had begun writing it as a letter to the Editor, it quickly grew out of proportion to that space. In the likely event that you will not be able to publish it, I hope at least that it might stimulate some thinking among the editorial and Op-Ed writers.

I had been following with great interest the Times' coverage of and comment on the story of Gina Grant, the-honor-student-whose-early-admission-to-Harvard-was-rescinded-when-it-was-revealed-that-she-had-pleaded-no-contest-to-the-voluntary-manslaugter-of-her-mother-in-1990, since its debut on the front page on April 8. My views had varied with the diverse revelations, as I first took Ms. Grant's side, then began to wonder about her. But on April 13, the Times published an article than put the whole affair into perspective for me. The article concerned Hector Gramajo.

Hector Gramajo is a retired Guatemalan general now running for President of his country. From 1986 to 1990, he was Defense Minister, responsible for a military whose method of prosecuting a long-running civil war involved mass killings, brutality, and intimidation of the Mayan Indian population and anyone who might sympathize with the Mayas or protest their treatment (such as American innkeeper Michael DeVine, murdered in 1990) and still does. The Times article described the judgment in a suit brought against him in U.S. courts by nine of his victims, including an American nun who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. The judgment came to $47.5 million.

But what was particularly striking in the article, and what is relevant to this discussion, was the mention of where Gen. Gramajo was when he was served with the suit papers: he was waiting to receive his degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on Commencement Day. In other words, this man, for whom the term "war criminal" seems charitable, whose record was a program of repression so repugnant that even the Bush Administration felt itself obliged to cut of all military aid, had been admitted to Harvard.

You might let this irony, this hypocrisy, sink in for a moment before you continue reading.

It may be argued that Gen. Gramajo had not been convicted of any crime or served time in detention, as Ms. Grant had. And perhaps, in response to both written and oral questions, he was completely forthright about any crimes for which he might have been responsible, which Ms. Grant is alleged not to have been -- but somehow, I doubt it. On the other hand, it may be that, as is asserted in Ms. Grant's defense, he had been traumatized by an alcoholic parent's emotional abuse, or a thirty-year insurgency's constant harrying, into actions contrary to his moral nature. And perhaps he was sincerely remorseful, and rehabilitated, and his desire for a Harvard Master's in Public Administration reflected his desire to run Guatemala in a more civilized, not just a more efficient manner. But this was not the impression I received from the article, nor from others I have read as Guatemala found itself in the news in recent weeks.

Caught in this inconsistency, this double standard, Harvard has several options if it wants to reclaim the moral high ground it so desperately craves. The university could agree to accept Ms. Grant on her original merits, with no mention of or comparison to Gen. Gramajo. It could stand by its decision to admit Gen. Gramajo, and then admit Ms. Grant for the sake of consistency, though this would oblige Ms. Grant to accept moral equivalence to the former Defense Minister, something which I would not blame her for refusing.

Or, Harvard could do something really brave, something revolutionary. The reason for un-accepting Ms. Grant appeared to be that Harvard does not want to associate itself and its prestigious name with those who engage in crime and/or behavior showing a lack of honesty and morality. This is a legitimate goal, which all institutions, and people, ought to pursue. However, it must be applied consistently. In Ms. Grant's case, this standard is being applied preemptively, before any association has been created. But what to do when the student has already been admitted? If he has not yet earned his degree, he can be expelled, as Yale University recently did with Lon Grammer, who had transferred there on forged documents. But what if Harvard does not learn of a student's past, or does not come to its senses and realize that that past is morally repugnant, until after a degree has already been awarded? What if a student who matriculates and graduates with a pristine personal record later turns bad and uses his Harvard degree, both the knowledge he has gained and the name he can put on his resume, towards nefarious ends? In both cases, the fair name of Harvard will have been brought into disrepute, with the country's oldest university powerless to stop it.

But not entirely. Harvard, or any other school, has a very simple option: rescinding a degree. The process would be similar to an annulment in the Catholic Church, through which a marriage is declared never to have occurred because of faults unnoticed at the time, and such inconvenient evidence of its existence as children can be ignored. Similarly, the degree would be declared null and void, never to have been awarded. (Other parallels might include a parent's disowning a prodigal child, or the Miss America Pageant's stripping Vanessa Williams of her title for having stripped for a men's magazine.) Although the practical benefit of a Harvard education cannot be taken back from those who are misusing it -- no one can be forced to forget what they have learned -- some of the other benefits could be revoked. Those whose degrees had been rescinded could no longer join Harvard Clubs or attend reunions, or participate in any other official activities of the Old Boy Network, nor, quite possibly, as news circulated of the rescission and the reasons for it, in any of its unofficial functions, as the rescindee became a pariah among his old classmates. The Registrar would no longer send out transcripts, nor professors send out letters of recommendation, to employers or graduate programs to which the disgraced alum was applying. But beyond this would be a worse punishment.

Harvard, like all schools, gives out honorary degrees to those for whom it wants to express approval, with whom it deigns to associate its name and with whose name it wants to be associated, for the glory is as much to the giver in having the offered honor accepted as to the recipient. Usually the recipients have no previous Harvard degree and thus are welcomed into the family of alumni, the huge group of sons and daughters of the alma mater, for the first time, owing to their achievements. Why not institute a formal process to do just the opposite, to expel a graduate who has dishonored the community of alumni/ae, the equivalent of breaking a French officer's sword? Sometime towards the end of the Commencement ceremonies, the President of the University would stand before the Convocation, solemn, perhaps wearing the same sort of black cap which English judges used to wear to pronounce death sentences. He would, of course, mention how distasteful this duty is, but how necessary, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Harvard degree and name. Then, he would announce the names of the un-alums, carefully chosen by the Fellows or the Board of Overseers after hearings at which the accused would have had the opportunity to defend themselves. He would describe their great promise, and their terrible betrayal of it, so painful to the President and the entire assembly. He would then pronounce the miscreant anathema, and enjoin the entire Alumni Association no longer to have anything to do with the dishonoree, perhaps even under penalty of similar expulsion, as under a West Point-style honor code. Perhaps the chapel bells would toll. And only with this memento mori, this reminder that Harvard too is fallible and can err grievously in admitting students and conferring degrees upon them, could the exercises proceed to happier matters. (Of course, there would also have to be a process for redeeming oneself, for rejoining the crimson brother- and sisterhood, but I doubt it would be used very often.)

I see excellent possibilities for this idea, which would probably be adopted by other schools the way so many Harvard innovations have been. College and graduate students would know that the whole thing would not be over at graduation, but that they would hold their degrees, and the lives they may have built upon them, only as long as they brought credit on the institutions that had awarded them. On the other hand, those who kept their degrees could take more pride in them, knowing that they did not share them with the morally reprehensible. Colleges and universities would be able to, would be expected to, exercise moral leadership by revoking the degrees of those judged morally wanting. The ultimate "thumbs-down" for a controversial public figure would be his alma mater's official censure; it would be worse than being bitten by his own dog. Students could pressure school administrations -- oh, the demonstrations! the marches and protests! -- to "divest" from politicians or business leaders with whom they disagreed, the very ones to whom the Dean had served tea the day before as he hunted for funds for the new laboratory building. Endless, endless possibilities. A school would hardly know where to start.

I, however, do know where to start. This is about Harvard, remember. And it's about people whose military strategies killed and destroyed the lives of thousands of their own people. Very well. In 1939, the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration awarded an MBA to Robert Strange McNamara. In later years, this man would betray his country and his conscience by waging and escalating a war he knew to be unwinnable. In 1950, Harvard conferred a BA, and in 1952 and1954, an MA and a PhD, on Henry Kissinger, whose policies devastated countries from Vietnam to Chile. (And then there is former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, M.P.A. 1973...) Perhaps some of these degrees, along with Gen. Gramajo's, should be serious candidates for revocation. "We were wrong, terribly wrong", to give McNamara a degree, the President might say, and the nation would gleefully realize that Kissinger no longer had the right to call himself "Doctor". (He could keep the B.A., perhaps, in recognition of his Middle East peace work.) And then, and only then, will Harvard be able to look Gina Grant in the eye.

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