Students and faculty at Harvard University are calling on the school to award posthumous degrees to seven students expelled nearly a century ago for being gay or perceived as gay, and they're timing a rally for their cause to coincide with a visit by Lady Gaga.
But Harvard says it doesn't award posthumous degrees, except in rare cases where students complete academic requirements but die before degrees have been conferred.
The university apologized a decade ago, after a student reporter found a file marked "secret court" in the university archives and wrote about the expulsions.
"In 2002, the University expressed its deep regret for the way the situation was handled as well as for the anguish experienced by the students and their families almost a century ago," Harvard spokesman John Longbrake said in a statement.
But some say the apology isn't enough and it's important for Harvard to confer honorary degrees.
"It's not reparations, it's more of a gesture to the present LGBT community that this university has cemented its values on the right side of history and it's willing to address — not just put in the past — the aberrations of the 1920s," said Jonas Wang, a 21-year-old transgender student. "You can say that the people of the court were the victims of their own culture, but this is something we are addressing in the present."
A group of students and faculty members plan a rally during a campus visit by Lady Gaga, who will be at Harvard on Wednesday to launch her Born This Way anti-bullying foundation. The singer has been a strong activist for the gay community.
The group wants Harvard to formally abolish the secret court, a tribunal of administrators that investigated charges of homosexual activity among students at the Ivy League school in 1920. The tribunal remained a secret for decades and only became public in 2002 after the report in the Harvard Crimson magazine.
More than 2,700 people have signed a petition on Change.org urging Harvard to confer the honorary degrees, and organizers plan to deliver the petition to Harvard President Drew Faust's office after the rally.
Lady Gaga's new foundation, named after her 2011 hit song and album, will address issues such as self-confidence, well-being and anti-bullying through research, education and advocacy. The singer is expected to be joined by Oprah Winfrey, spiritual leader Deepak Chopra and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during Wednesday's kickoff event.
"Given the Born This Way Foundation's commitment to this mission and their choice to launch their foundation at Harvard, we felt like this was an opportunity to ask for their support and would hope they would join us in asking Harvard to do the right thing here and help seek justice for these students," said Kaia Stern, a visiting faculty member at Harvard who plans to attend the rally.
In 2002, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers called the episode "abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university."
"I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago," Summers said in a 2002 statement to The Harvard Crimson newspaper.
The Harvard tribunal began its investigation after student Cyril Wilcox committed suicide in his Fall River home in May 1920. Wilcox was having academic problems and had been asked to leave Harvard.
When Wilcox's brother, George, informed the acting dean of the college, Chester Greenough, of Cyril's suicide, he passed on letters that left no doubt that Cyril was part of a group of gay men at Harvard.
After consulting with Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Greenough convened a group of administrators to gather evidence.
The expelled students, including the son of former U.S. Rep. Ernest William Roberts, were told to leave the Harvard campus — and Cambridge — immediately.
One student, Eugene Cummings, 23, committed suicide at Harvard's infirmary after he was questioned by the tribunal.
A student movement called "Their Day in the Yard" was founded in 2010 to urge the university to grant the honorary degrees to the students expelled in 1920.