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The Case of Michelle Jones

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It hasn’t been the best 24 hours for Harvard University. You’ve probably heard that Harvard managed to piss almost everyone off by first extending and then rescinding a fellowship appointment to Chelsea Manning. But you may or may not have seen this article in the Times about a woman named Michelle Jones.

It is a fascinating and powerful story on many levels. Jones, now 45, just finished a 20 year stint in prison for killing her 4-year old son. It’s not entirely clear to me from the story – and I sense it was never entirely clear – whether Jones intentionally killed her son in a discreet act of violence or whether he died from some combination of physical beatings and neglect. Regardless, the ghastliness of the crime is not in dispute. Jones was originally sentenced to 50 years in prison and was released after 20 years for good behavior.

The story from there is that rare but classic case of prison redemption. Jones’ teen years included rape, pregnancy at 14, beatings by her mother and rounds of stays in group homes and with foster families. Once in prison, she went to college and eventually advanced to doing serious historical research from within prison. She was the textbook model prisoner who took every advantage to transform herself and advance herself by the measures our society claims to value. Eventually, she applied to a number of top graduate programs in anticipation of her release. Harvard accepted her but eventually rescinded the admission claiming either that she had not been fully transparent about the nature of her crime or had not dealt with it in her application in a way that showed sufficient contrition.

(For clarity on this point, there doesn’t seem any reason to think Jones concealed anything. After all, she applied from prison. The claim seems to be that she didn’t talk about it enough in her application.)

What actually seems to have happened is that Harvard’s history department accepted Jones. But the graduate school and university did not approve the offer of enrollment, despite the fact that academic departments at these universities are almost universally allowed to choose their own students. Two professors from the American Studies department wrote to the graduate school and university leaders questioning whether Jones should be admitted to Harvard and asking that the offer be reviewed and scrutinized.

Everything above is a pretty straightforward rendition of what’s contained in the article and, I think, is pretty much agreed by all the people involved. What struck me most about the article is that Harvard and particularly one of the two professors from the American Studies department were fairly candid that their trepidation was largely about what conservatives and literally what Fox News would say about accepting the admission of a woman who had killed her own child, even if she’d served the entirety of her sentence for that crime.

Here’s a passage with a quote from John Stauffer, one of the two American Studies profs …

“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”

Reading this quote I thought, well at least he’s being candid! But these are not good reasons. Or rather, these aren’t any reasons.

These don’t seem simply to be one man’s poorly chosen words. Here’s the Times explanation of the reasoning of university administrators (emphasis added) …

While top Harvard officials typically rubber-stamp departmental admissions decisions, in this case the university’s leadership — including the president, provost, and deans of the graduate school — reversed one, according to the emails and interviews, out of concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students.

Public opinion, as well as the opinion of the various stakeholders that make up a university community, are important. They can never be ignored. That doesn’t mean you bow to it. But to turn the metaphor on its head, universities aren’t secluded off in an ivory tower. They exist in the world. They have students, alumni, donors. Especially for public universities, running afoul of public opinion in major ways can have serious consequences since a state’s political leaders have ultimate control over public educational institutions, even if the control is mediated through regents or appointed boards. But Harvard is a private institution with a $35 billion endowment. No one wants to be criticized. But Harvard probably has less vulnerability to public opinion, political interference or Fox News mau-mauing than any private institution in the US.

Are conservative alums going to refuse to send their kids to Harvard? Please.

What is so striking to me is the unwillingness or inability to make a judgment on the merits. I come down strongly on the side of thinking that we need to go to great lengths as a society to allow people to be cleansed of their civic sins post-incarceration. Still, I get that this is going to be controversial on the merits to many people. But again, even Harvard’s own collective explanation seems to be: we were afraid what people would say about us. That is just not a good reason. Some institutions need to make hard decisions about public and political backlashes. Harvard doesn’t.

The other point is this. Any college or university has to be cognizant of what students’ parents think. But Stauffer’s reference to Fox News and what the Times called Harvard’s concern about “conservative news outlets” is precisely the kind of tendentious bullying that universities are supposed to resist.

There are a million factors that go into graduate admissions. I have no way to know if Jones was the best choice for admission. But the people who axed her admission are saying from their own mouths that it was really for the worst reason.

Here’s another more delicate matter.

When I read this article I had no idea who John Stauffer was. His comment quoted above made me think he was some crusty older professor just very out of touch with contemporary discussions of race, incarceration and what I guess we’d call not being a douche. So I was a bit dumbfounded when I looked him up and saw he’s actually a historian of abolitionism and social protest movements in the 19th century.

Now, I’m trying to resist a clumsy leap of logic that holds that because Stauffer is an expert on 19th century anti-slavery politics that he should somehow be more sympathetic to this black woman. But, as Stauffer himself put it, c’mon … Race is central to this story. Race is inextricably bound up with the story of mass incarceration. Jones’ story isn’t only about race of course. She killed her own son. I’m sure there are many African-Americans who think she never should have been admitted, maybe even should be shunned for her crime. And you could be the most ‘enlightened’ white person on race and just have a different opinion about her case. But Stauffer’s actions and his words just struck me as showing a lack of cognizance and consciousness about race in America that I can only say I found jarring from a specialist on his area of study.

This was all on my brain last night when I tweeted a few comments about it generally in line with what I’ve written above. Then this morning I got this email from a reader.

Dear Josh,

I saw your tweets on Stauffer. Thought you might be interested in Mia Bay’s review of his book on abolitionism (enclosed). Her main point is he doesn’t get race. For me at least it helped put his comments in perspective.

Take care,

I can’t link the article because the reader sent me a PDF. But you can read an excerpt from it here.

It is a very good review. While I can’t judge Stauffer’s book without having read it myself, Bay makes a pretty good argument for this judgment: “Presenting an especially rich portrait of the fascinating eccentric Gerrit Smith, The Black Hearts of Men maps the friendship and political collaboration between these four men, who became acquainted in the late 1840s and who worked together in the short-lived Radical Abolition Party, which was founded in 1855. Yet this “collective biography,” which Stauffer describes “as a braiding together of four lives,” will disappoint anyone looking for either an analysis of the relationship between black and white abolitionism or for fully fleshed out portraits of all four men. Stauffer’s intensely romantic portrait of the friendship between these men stresses their commonalities rather than their differences, often obscuring the distinctions in class, race, and common sense that divided them.”

There are too many details and strands to Bay’s analysis for me to do them justice in this post. The most interesting was revisiting the differing views on political violence of Frederick Douglass and John Brown – and Stauffer’s take on them. Suffice it to say, that I came away agreeing with the reader that reading her review helped me put Stauffer’s comments in an elucidating context.

Online criticism can quickly lead to vilification in which a person is reduced to a caricature of themselves. I’m not trying to vilify Stauffer. I don’t know him or his work and I’m only responding to published accounts (inherently limited) of his role in this one case. Still, I think it is a story from which we can learn or open ourselves up to learning how our scholarship or work is related to our immediate professional lives. Anyone who’s lived in academia knows that people’s professional selves can appear jarringly dissonant with you might expect from their scholarship.  On a closer view, connections can reveal themselves. If you can access the Mia Bay review, I recommend it. You can find the full citation in the excerpt link above.

Jones just began the PhD program at NYU, another top flight graduate program. So happily the story has a happy ending for her, or perhaps rather a beginning.

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mareino
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hannahdraper
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Amid Opioid Crisis, Insurers Restrict Pricey, Less Addictive Painkillers

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Alisa Erkes had to switch to long-acting morphine after her insurance company stopped covering the less risky pain reliever she took for chronic abdominal pain.

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mareino
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I've seen this up close. It takes an iron will and supreme confidence to turn down opioids, when everyone from doctor to insurer is pushing them on you.
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Storm Brewing

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TPM Reader PB reads some tea leaves about Google …

Recently I was at an industry round table which included many of the tech players. We are all being affected by certain decisions made by Google and more importantly so are Internet users.

Like Microsoft in the 1990s, Google seems to take the position that consideration of government issues is a matter for their policy staff on the Hill and absolutely nobody else. Their lobbying efforts are write-only, they are there to tell Congress what to do and not to listen to what Congress has to say.

Having been involved in Internet technology at a senior level for 25 years, the thing I want most from my lobbyists and policy people is to tell me what is happening and what Congress and the agencies are trying to achieve. That does not mean I am necessarily going to do what they want but if I am not going to step into a meat grinder it is going to be on purpose and not because I didn’t bother to notice what I was doing.

Like Microsoft engineers in the 1990s, the Google engineers appear to have no idea of the level of concern their company has raised in Congress or just how many powerful enemies they have made.

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mareino
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hannahdraper
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Side Street: Jesuit Priest Stands Up for Gay Catholics, Then Faces Backlash

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In his latest book, the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and author, encourages lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and the Church to come together. His position has led to criticism, insults and canceled invitations to events.

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mareino
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Jesuits are pretty great. The rest of the Church can wail and gnash their teeth, but Jesuits know that ethics are more important than any tradition.
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I Own A Bike Instead Of A Car: 5 Reasons Everyone Hates Me

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mareino
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OMG the maintenance, so much maintenance.
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This Day in Labor History: September 15, 1845

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On September 15, 1845, women working in the Pittsburgh textile mills met in Market Square to discuss the necessity of fighting to cut their days from 12 to 10 hours without a reduction in pay. This led to a strike and a violent confrontation three weeks later that demonstrated both the militancy early workers could show in fighting for their rights and the very difficult challenges they faced in winning a strike.

As the textile industry expanded by the 1840s, the earlier visionary leadership to create a humane factory system at Lowell had been resoundingly defeated by capital in a competitive industry with low-capitalization and plentiful workers. That industry was rapidly expanding as well. Originally focused in New England, by the 1830s, it was a major employer in New Jersey, where women struck for better conditions. And by the 1840s, it had spread west. Pittsburgh had become an important center of textile production. About 5000 workers labored in these mills. Like the rest of the textile industry, most of them were women and children, working in tremendously unsafe conditions for low wages. They worked 72 hour weeks, 12 hours a day for six days. Women made between $2.50 and $6 a week. Children topped out at $3 a week.

As competition came to define this industry, employers sought to take profit out of workers’ already meager wages. In 1843, this hit Pittsburgh and workers wages were slashed. This led to the first confrontation in a workers’ movement that culminated two years later. In 1845, 5000 workers in Pittsburgh and nearby Allegheny City walked off their job. They had simple demands–a wage increase that would return them to what was passing for a livable wage before the 1843 cuts, as well as the ten-hour day. On September 15, at the mass meeting, the workers decided to “turn out” until they received their 10 hour day. They sought solicitations from other workers in the Pittsburgh area. Employers said no way, claiming it would make them uncompetitive with New England mills. The strike was on.

This was not a well-organized strike. There was no union and certainly no sort of strike pay, except whatever pennies workers around the city donated. It was an act of desperation. They held on for about a month, which is pretty remarkable considering the dire straits of their lives. They knew that if they had any chance to win, they would have to keep scabs out of the mills. Some women decided to use force to make that happen. Taking axes with them, they stormed factory doors to drive away the scabs and the hired guards. It sometimes worked.

But the American public throughout the 19th century, and really through the vast majority of American history, really abhorred the idea of workers organizing. Because we tell stories of workers heroic struggles against employers in our memory of labor history, we leave out the general public. And the general public repeatedly turned harshly against even mild levels of worker organizing. Sure, some of that was driven by employer-dominated media, but it also related to deep seated ideas of individualism and Jefferson agrarianism in American mythology that saw cities themselves as evil, partially because they spawned dirty factories, poverty, and unions. Such was the case for the textile strike in Pittsburgh. At first, there was support for the workers in the local newspapers, who noted that 12 hours was too long for workers to labor. But this would be short-lived. Soon, popular support was firmly on the side of the employers, more so as time went on. They struck back too, having their hired goons beat the women and children fighting for a better life. Given that the strikers were starting to break machines and burn company gates, this reaction probably isn’t too surprising.

In the Blackstock Mill, scabs were operating the machines. The women leading the strike had made common cause with the nascent union movement in Pittsburgh, the beginnings of one of the nation’s strongest union towns. Together, on October 6, 1845, they decided to march on the Blackstock and evict the scabs working inside. The women did all the dirty work. They broke down the factory gates, marched inside, physically grabbed the workers, and threw them out of the mill. The male unionists stood as their guard against the police and the company’s muscle. This was a brief victory, but also only exacerbated the public feeling against the workers. Whatever feeling there was for the workers disappeared nearly overnight and the newspapers began calling for the end of the strike on October 7. Ultimately, for Americans, private property mattered more than workers’ rights. Even supporters of the strike began to worry that the strikers were overturning the “harmony” between capital and labor that supposedly was the atmosphere in Pittsburgh. You see these displays again and again in the 19th century, with many Americans ultimately believing fervently in the growing system of industrial capitalism and blaming workers when they took action against it. In the New York Tribune, the famed journalist Horace Greeley began calling the women “The Amazons of Allegheny.” The strike soon collapsed and the women and children gained nothing. By October 20, the mills were all running once again on the 12 hour day.

The strike did however tap into larger reform efforts throughout the northeast that hoped to alleviate some of the worst exploitation in the mills. In 1848, this led the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a law that prohibited employers from employing workers for more than ten hours a day. However, in an era where both the idea of the contract was a god and the state found the idea of regulation repellent, employers soon pushed through a follow-up bill that allowed exceptions to the new 10-hour law if an employee signed a contract agreeing to the longer day. Of course that immediately eviscerated the 10-hour law. All workers had to sign those contracts and the spirit of the law was destroyed. The workers of Pennsylvania and the United States would have to wait another 90 years for the law to require reasonable working hours. Ultimately, the problem of wages and hours could not be handled nationally in a mobile industry. Even had Pennsylvania vigorously enforced the 10-hour law, in an industry like textiles, the competition from New England mills and the constant look for new production sites meant it would have been very hard for the Pittsburgh mills to remain competitive. Like today, meaningful labor reform would require federal action that was not coming in 1845. Or in 2017.

This post borrowed from Jason Martinek’s article “The Amazons of Allegheny: The Fire, the Riot, and the Textile Strike of 1845,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.

This is the 236th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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mareino
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