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Harvard Group Seeks Posthumous Degrees For Gay Students Expelled in 1920

Jim Burroway

February 29th, 2012

Students and faculty at Harvard University are calling for posthumous degrees to be awarded to seven students who were expelled from the university in 1920 after a secret campus court determined that they were gay.

The secret courts began when Cyril Wilcox, a Harvard undergraduate, committed suicide on May 13, 1920  after telling his older brother, George, that he had been having an affair with another man. Shortly after Cyril’s death, George intercepted two letters from a Harvard student and a recent graduate. George took these letters to Harvard’s Acting Dean, Chester N Greenough who, after consulting with Harvard President Abbot Lowell, formed a special five-man tribunal which became known as the “Secret Court.”

The court launched a wide-ranging witch hunt, with Greenough summoning each witness one-by-one with a brief note. The Court’s inquiry was exhaustive, posing questions about masturbation practices, sex with women or men, cross-dressing, overnight guests, parties, and reading habits. The scope of the inquiry soon expanded to area businesses, cafés and bars. At least seven students were expelled, ordered to leave Cambridge and reported to their families. They were also told that Harvard would disclose the reasons for their expulsion if employers or other schools sought references. One student killed himself after being questioned by the court. Four others unconnected to Harvard were also deemed “guilty.” The school couldn’t punish them directly, but they did pressure one café to fire a waiter.

The university officially apologized in 2002 after the Harvard Crimson discovered boxes of papers marked “Secret Court” in the university’s archives. In response to the latest call for posthumous degrees, a university spokesperson said that Harvard doesn’t award posthumous degrees, except in the rare cases where students had completed their academic requirements but died before degrees could be awarded. Students and faculty members are planning a rally during a campus visit by Lady Gaga, where she will formally launch her Born This Way anti-bullying foundation.

You can learn more about the “secret court” in our Daily Agenda from May 23.



February 29th, 2012 | LINK

What exactly are they trying to achieve by having these degrees awarded?

If their goal is increased awareness, perhaps the activists could focus on ensuring that learning about this dark mark is a part of some sort of freshman orientation regarding diversity. I just worry that any sort of posthumous degree could allow future generations to whitewash the whole story: “Nothing to see here. No injustice committed here. We’re also in the first state with Gay Marriage, etc. etc. etc.”

February 29th, 2012 | LINK

My own suggestion is that the law school create a chair in Gay Family Law. This is a contemporary response to a then-contemporary response to homosexuality; it is about as far away from that earlier outrage as is possible today.

March 1st, 2012 | LINK

I think this is much like the Alan Turing situation, where a posthumous pardon for the great mathematician and war hero was recently refused by the House of Lords, for what I think was a good reason. In Lord McNally’s words, “rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.” What Harvard did cannot be put right: better to remember, and ensure that it never happens again, rather than try to rewrite history.

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