Harvard hands out a scarlet letter

April 13, 1995|By Andrew M. Greeley

I WONDER WHAT John Harvard, righteous puritan that he was, thinks of his university.

Presumably he would be appalled at the lack of godliness at the institution. But the Gena Grant case proves that puritan cruelty is still alive and well.

Ms. Grant is the young woman who was a class president and a straight-A student who, at the age of 14, killed her abusive, intoxicated mother.

My concern is not with the immorality of Ms. Grant's action. Leave that to the talk-show justices and to God. Her mother's brother testified for the young woman in court and her sentence was mild (a few months in a juvenile home and probation).

The point is that Ms. Grant paid her debt to society as the court fixed that debt. She continued to be an honor student and to tutor poor children.

Harvard University accepted her and then, when it found out about her crime, withdrew the acceptance.

Well, at least they didn't take a leaf from Nathaniel Hawthorne and admit her on the condition that the letter "M" be embroidered on her clothes.

Harvard does all it can to be politically correct, but apparently there are limits.

At Harvard University there is no room for sinners, no matter how subjectively grievous the sin might or might not be. It does not matter that the court thought there were extenuating circumstances. Sin, at Mother Harvard, is sin and that's that.

It kind of reminds me of the Catholic high schools for women in which a pregnant woman was expelled or at least forbidden to participate in graduation ceremonies. Both Harvard and the nuns who taught at such schools believe that sin must be punished. Both Mother Harvard and Mother Superior rejected compassion for the sinner.

Canon law forbids such expulsions now, though I suspect there are some Catholic schools in the country that still throw them out.

For the nuns the compassion of Jesus was irrelevant. For Harvard the compassion of its agnostic liberalism is equally irrelevant.

Hooray for morality! And, if anyone at Harvard hears a voice saying "let the one without sin cast the first stone," Mother Harvard can respond that she is indeed without sin, because look at how politically correct she is.

Hypocrisy? Meanness? Cruelty? Indeed yes. Moreover, Ms. Grant could hardly go there now anyway, since Harvard has branded her as a murderer just as surely as Hester was branded an adulteress in "The Scarlet Letter."

When I was in parish work, a young woman from the community was accepted by a very proper school of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Then she suffered the same fate as Gena Grant when it was discovered that her father was a little too closely connected to what we in Chicago call the "outfit."

It would be unfair to attribute her early death from suicide to that rejection. It would not be unfair to see it as a contributing factor.

Somehow I have a hard time seeing the difference between what Manhattanville did in the 1960s and what Harvard has done in the 1990s. Both institutions came upon a young woman who was obviously in deep trouble. Instead of helping her up, both kicked her in the face and then walked away in self-righteous pride.

The aristocratic president of Manhattanville (now thoroughly disestablished by the way) wrote me that the young woman just wouldn't be happy at her school.

Harvard announced it could not discuss the case because it must protect Ms. Grant's privacy. Having destroyed her privacy they are now protecting it. And chickens have lips.

Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, author and sociologist.

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