Harvard Rescinds Offer To Parkland Survivor After Discovery Of Racist Comments

Jun 18, 2019
Originally published on June 18, 2019 9:08 pm

Kyle Kashuv, one of the survivors of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., applied and was accepted into Harvard University.

His acceptance, however, was rescinded after Harvard discovered that Kashuv, now 18, used racial slurs in texts, Skype conversations and Google documents when he was 16.

Here's why people are talking about Kashuv's case.

A Parkland survivor turned activist

Kashuv's name first came into the spotlight after he survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. After the shooting, he became a nationally prominent gun-rights advocate while many of his surviving classmates instead organized to advocate for gun control.

What did Kashuv say?

On May 23, the Huffington Post published messages written by Kashuv that contained repeated uses of the N-word and phrases like "Kill all the f***ing Jews." According to the Huffington Post, the screenshots of the texts, Skype conversations and Google documents were provided by classmates and a "former friend" of Kashuv.

Kashuv defended himself on Twitter, saying he used "callous and inflammatory language in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible." He noted that he was 16 years old when he made the comments and that the shooting changed his perspective.

"I see the world through different eyes and am embarrassed by the petty, flippant kid represented in those screenshots," he said on Twitter.

Harvard's decision

According to a screenshot posted by Kashuv, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, asked him to provide a "full accounting" of his racist statements and a "written explanation of your actions" in a letter dated May 24.

Kashuv said on Twitter that he replied with an apology in which he stated, "I bore no racial animus" and that "the context was a group of adolescents trying to use the worst words and say the most insane things imaginable." But in a second letter dated June 3, Fitzsimmons said that the admissions committee had voted to rescind his admission, citing "maturity and moral character."

Colleges have long-standing, if rarely used, policies of revoking admissions offers if a student is found to have engaged in questionable conduct. In fact, in 2017 a group of 10 students had their Harvard admissions revoked, also for offensive online posts.

Rachael Dane, a spokesperson for Harvard, told NPR that the university does not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants and added that the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under several conditions, including "if an admitted student engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character."

Kashuv and Turning Point USA

Before these comments came to light, Kashuv was named an outreach director for the conservative campus group Turning Point USA. According to the Huffington Post, he stepped down when his former classmates threatened to make the messages public.

Turning Point USA has on its website the slogan "Winning America's Culture War." The group maintains a website called Professor Watchlist that lists the names and public profiles of hundreds of professors who have expressed personal views, such as calling people "racist" on Twitter, or who have published feminist research. Many of these professors have been doxed — that is, had their identity or address exposed — and harassed, as NPR reported last year.

Onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, President Trump publicly praised conservative activist Hayden Williams, who was punched while volunteering as a campus recruiter for Turning Point USA. The president brought Williams onstage when he talked about issuing an executive order to protect campus free speech.

Jessie Daniels, a sociology professor at Hunter College who studies racists and white supremacists online, says that the Kashuv incident plays neatly into Turning Point USA's broader agenda.

"Part of what the far right is doing in every domain is trying to push that line of what's acceptable," Daniels said. "The N-word has become one of the skirmishes in this larger war."

"Harvard is pushing back and saying, 'Nope, that's not acceptable behavior,' " Daniels said.

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A survivor of the Parkland shooting recently found out he won't be entering Harvard University as a freshman after all.


KYLE KASHUV: So a few weeks ago, I was made aware of some extremely terrible things I said when I was 16 - so about two years ago, months before the shooting. I immediately apologized not because I had to; because it was the right thing to do.

CORNISH: Kyle Kashuv made his case to the university, but Harvard stuck with the decision. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been reporting on this topic. She's here to explain. Hey there, Anya.


CORNISH: So let's talk about those terrible things he was made aware of. Who is Kyle Kashuv?

KAMENETZ: So like many of his Parkland classmates, Kashuv became a national figure after the shooting. But unlike many of them, he did so as a right-wing gun rights activist with the NRA as well as a group called Turning Point USA. And after he was accepted to Harvard, some of his former classmates made some statements available to the media that he had made in private text messages and a shared Google doc with his classmates and on Skype messaging. And these were multiple uses of the N-word, referring to the sexual preferences of some of his classmates and various other offensive statements.

CORNISH: So these were all private messages, though. Why are we hearing about his story now?

KAMENETZ: Well, so after his classmates made this a news story, Kashuv himself chose to post to Twitter all of the details of his correspondence with Harvard's admissions office, including his attempts to apologize and explain himself and their decision to revoke his admissions. And that's approximately when this became a national media story.

CORNISH: Right. So what we're seeing on the news today is his attempt to defend himself. Here's a video he released to that end.


KASHUV: I don't believe Harvard is an institution that is racist, that is bigoted, that is sexist. I don't think that because I think that institutions can grow and people can change. This isn't about me anymore; it's whether we live in a society where people can grow, where people can change.

CORNISH: Let's talk about the argument he's making, beginning with the idea that it's not about him anymore.

KAMENETZ: So Kashuv is pointing the finger at Harvard and saying, you know, it was founded by slave holders. People can change. It's fair to point out, I think, that Kashuv is not claiming to have evolved on racial issues. He said to Harvard that he bore no racial animus when he used some of those words. Now, this is an argument that has a bigger context. I talked to Jessie Daniels, a sociologist at City University of New York. She studies the growth of the far right online. And she says Kashuv's association with Turning Point USA in particular makes his statements more than just youthful provocation. She calls them both hate speech and a form of political action.

JESSIE DANIELS: This kind of provoking and using language to provoke is very much in the playbook of the far right and has been for, you know, a good 20 years now.

CORNISH: How does this case compare, though, to the case two years ago, when 10 students lost their admission to Harvard because of their social media posts?

KAMENETZ: These two examples of casual, provocative racism by white, privileged teenagers that then gets pushback from an elite university really kind of begs the question, how did these young people land on these statements being what is edgy or shocking to say? Daniels and other scholars have documented that this is no accident. It's actually the payoff to decades of concerted efforts by committed white supremacists and neo-Nazis online to position these very old racist tropes as being fresh and exciting.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, this has become one of those kind of, like, cultural political footballs. What's the broader message here?

KAMENETZ: You know, Daniels really calls this a perfect storm because groups like Turning Point USA, other far-right groups have latched onto higher education as the spot where their culture wars are going to happen and where there's a pushback between, you know, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say on the one hand, political correctness on the other. And this is all somehow positioned as an argument over free speech. And I think that seems to be what's playing out here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.