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Harvard Was Right to Snatch Back Those Students’ Acceptance Letters

Entrance gate and Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in CambridgeEntrance gate and Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in Cambridge
Entrance gate and East facade of Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Roman Babakin—iStockphoto/Getty Images

Imagine being a recent high school grad and one of the 5.2% of applicants accepted into Harvard University, only to later be informed that your acceptance letter was being rescinded. Harvard recently did just that to 10 students accepted into the class of 2021 because of offensive memes they shared in a private Facebook (FB) group. Many would argue that, given that the posts were shared privately, Harvard overstepped its boundaries. But the truth is that there is no difference between the actions of an institution of higher learning, a non-profit organization, or a for-profit business when it comes to searching for potential students or new hires.

Think about how an employer typically vets potential new hires. Sure, resumes and interviews matter, but they ask for references and research the candidates to try to get to the essence of who the person really is.

I believe that Harvard’s action was an appropriate response to the clearly inappropriate behavior and poor character that is all too common in the professional and business world today. In order for businesses or organizations to be successful and perceived by those around them as upstanding and trustworthy, they must place a high priority on their standards of conduct and character. It is the character of their employees or members who define the organization—not their skills, capabilities, products, or services.

Here are a few reasons why character matters:

Behaviors can rarely be changed
Skills can be taught or gained, but behaviors and character are not easily changed or modified. That’s why screening for the desired behaviors, administering personal assessments, doing background checks, and asking for references are becoming more and more important when making hiring decisions.

Everyone makes mistakes, especially as adolescents. But that does not excuse the kind of behavior that is mean-spirited or unethical. Most teenagers expect to be treated as young adults, and with that comes the responsibility to behave as an adult.

Private moments define our character
It has often been said that what we do when we are alone or in the privacy of our home defines our real character. This is absolutely true. It is easy to be an actor in a play as we engage with the public, but when we retreat into our private lives, we will take off our masks and become our true selves. These moments are the ones that define who we are and what matters most to us.

The fact that this was a closed (private) group might suggest that the participants did not want their comments, thoughts, and opinions seen by others, which supports the notion that there might be an underlying character issue.

There is no such thing as privacy
This is not a secret. Nothing we do in today’s technology-driven age should be considered private—not our emails, not our phone calls, and not our social media posts. We must assume that our communications can and will be shared, and as long as we are acting with integrity, truth, and strong morals, we have nothing to fear.

Consider the reasons why individuals are either fired from their jobs or asked to leave a company. In most cases, the underlying reasons have to do with bad behaviors and poor character—whether it’s consistently showing up late for work, not calling in when sick, taking unapproved shortcuts, unauthorized use of company resources, etc.—not the lack of skill or competency. The recent Wells Fargo (WFC) fake accounts scandal is a perfect example. Supervisors put inappropriate pressure on employees to hit their numbers. Both the supervisors and the employees were skilled and capable, but they both exhibited a lack of honesty, good judgement, and strong ethics, and many were eventually let go because of it.


Organizations today must declare their expectations and set their standards high. And once set, they must live up to those standards without exception. In business, this is critical to sustaining profitability and growth. In non-profit organizations, this is critical to sustaining community support and donor contributions. In higher education, this is critical to maintaining the prestige and position that has taken years to establish.

Rich Allen is author of The Ultimate Business Tune Up.