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.
The admissions dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences declined to be interviewed, and a university spokeswoman did not respond to a set of eight questions about the case, saying that “as a policy, we do not comment on individual applicants.”
Instead, the spokeswoman offered a general statement saying the graduate school “is committed to recruiting and enrolling students from all backgrounds” and “strives to create an inclusive and supportive environment where all students can thrive.”
Harvard has, indeed, made room for a wider range of voices on its campus in recent years, including the formerly incarcerated. Drew Faust, a historian who is departing as Harvard’s president in June after a decade, has expanded global outreach and financial aid, and hired a host of minority faculty who have broadened perspectives about prison reform and black culture.
In that mode of outreach, staff members of both Harvard’s history and American studies departments took it upon themselves to type Ms. Jones’s application into Harvard’s online system since she could not.
But after the history department accepted her and the American studies program listed her as a top alternate, two American studies professors flagged Ms. Jones’s file for the admissions dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In a memo to university administrators, these professors said the admissions dean had told them Ms. Jones’s selection would be reviewed by the president and provost, and questioned whether she had minimized her crime “to the point of…