It can only be assumed that anyone accepted into Harvard, one of America’s most elite universities, had an impressive list of academic and personal accomplishments to get them there. But all it took was a Facebook group titled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens” to get at least 10 accepted students kicked out—before they even set foot in Harvard Yard.
The Ivy League university in Massachusetts has rescinded its offers to a group of students after finding out about their participation in the “obscene” private Facebook chat, according to the Harvard Crimson. Topics of mockery in the group—which split off from an original 100-member group set up by newly accepted members of the class of 2021 to discuss pop culture—included child abuse, sexual assault, racism, and the Holocaust. According to screenshots obtained by the Crimson and interviews with the students involved, one meme joked about the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child and called it “piñata time.”
After Harvard discovered the existence of the chat in mid-April, its admissions committee sent emails to the students who posted the “offensive memes and graphics” and told them to “submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions.” A week later, at least 10 members of the group received letters notifying them that the school was withdrawing its offers of acceptance. (The school did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment, but we will update this story with any reply.) A spokesperson told the Crimson it does “not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants.”
Niche memes are a curious, sprawling phenomenon to come out of the US’s elite colleges—but most of the ones that students post are inside jokes about the school, or revolve around topics like classes, campus culture, and post-grad life. Harvard’s decision to rescind acceptance letters over memes has drawn discomfort from the student community, with some arguing that the administration should not be able to penalize students for comments and jokes made in a private Facebook group.
Harvard clearly disagrees. And its withdrawal of acceptances is an escalation from last year, when the school denounced—but did not punish—anti-feminist and racially charged jokes that members of the class of 2020 posted in an unofficial group chat. In a time when campuses are paying more attention than ever to cultural sensitivity and the idea of academic “safe spaces,” it’s clear that actions on social media, however private, are not exempt from scrutiny.
There is also some irony in the fact that Harvard is the school where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started up his arguably offensive “Facemash,” a “hot or not”-type site in which students rated each others’ attractiveness, a decade ago. That site eventually spawned the social media giant where today’s group of accepted Harvard freshmen ran into trouble.