An Apology, From Beyond the Grave

Harvard University may reconsider, and indeed apologize for, a 1920 incident that resulted in the expulsion of seven students because of apparent homosexual activity. According to an Associated Press article by Denise Lavoie:

Students and faculty at Harvard University are calling on the school to award posthumous degrees to seven students expelled nearly a century ago for being gay or perceived as gay, and they’re timing a rally for their cause to coincide with a visit by Lady Gaga.

But Harvard says it doesn’t award posthumous degrees, except in rare cases where students complete academic requirements but die before degrees have been conferred.

In a situation creepily reminiscent of the Tyler Clementi incident at Rutgers in October 2010—in which the suicide of one gay student and the note he left behind prompted a criminal investigation into the behavior of his roommate—the Harvard incident also ended up involving the campus extensively.

In 1920 Harvard student Cyril Wilcox committed suicide. His brother George passed his brother’s letters to campus administrators. The letters indicated that Wilcox was a part of a group of sexually active gay men. This prompted administrators to investigate homosexual behavior on campus. Seven students, Kenneth Day, Stanley Gilkey, Joseph Lumbard, Ernest Weeks Roberts, Edward Say, Keith Smerage, Nathaniel Wollf, were expelled and did not return.

After an investigation by a journalist exposed the incident, known as the Secret Court of 1920, a decade ago Harvard’s then-president, Larry Summers, apologized.

“I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago,” Summers said in 2002. The incident was “abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university.”

Harvard students subsequently created a project, “Their Day in the Yard,” to compel the university to award undergraduate degrees to the expelled students posthumously. More than 2,700 people have signed a petition urging the university to issue the diplomas.

“It’s more of a gesture to the present LGBT community that this university has cemented its values on the right side of history…. You can say that the people of the court were the victims of their own culture, but this is something we are addressing in the present,” one student apparently said to Lavoie.

Well, right. The problem is that the 1920 incident doesn’t really have much to do with anything going on at the institution today. The students, of course, are all dead, so awarding them posthumous degrees wouldn’t really fix anything and would be more of a PR gesture on Harvard’s part.

Day, Gilkey, Lumbard,Roberts, Say, Smerage, and Wollf remain just as dead, and they died equally disgraced, whether they get token degrees in the twenty-first century or not.

Incidentally Chester Greenough, the acting dean, was responsible for setting up the secret court and expelling the students in 1920. He graduated from Harvard in 1898. There is apparently no campus movement to posthumously take his degree away.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer