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The Yearbook of Living Dangerously

  • A Supreme Court nominee’s high school yearbook suggests alcohol abuse and mistreatment of women.

  • A newly elected Governor’s medical school yearbook features a photo of a man in blackface alongside another person in KKK robes.

  • A Dean of Admissions appears in a yearbook photo from her undergraduate days posing in front of a Confederate flag.

  • A College Trustee’s yearbook contains a photo of him dressed as a Nazi for a “Hogan’s Heroes’” theme party.

I can see an emerging market for consultants specializing in the scrutiny of high school and college yearbooks. I’m pretty sure that they will find plentiful examples of offensive statements, images, and histories that merit reflection and debate within educational communities. Of course, they could also find at least as many examples in the archives of almost any other human enterprise, but that does not address the most important issue:

Have we developed the analytical tools for making wise and fair institutional decisions about such matters? The pain felt by those who were victims of sexual abuse or whose ancestors were brutalized and murdered by Nazi Germany or the Confederacy is real and justified. It is also true that our society has become more aware and solicitous of this pain over the course of generations, and that behaviors unacceptable today were once generally considered unobjectionable by the dominant society.

The yearbook challenge is related to – but, I would argue, very different from the festering controversy over monuments to and institutions named for historical figures whose deeds and values offend those of contemporary society. I am presumptuous enough to offer thoughts on both – but will share my perspective on the latter problem, how it is different, and how other rules should apply in a separate post.

So let’s consider the yearbook problem. Each of us is imperfect and any record of our lives inevitably preserves moments of poor judgment. If we’re lucky, our yearbook photos will simply embarrass us with documentation of our bad choices in hairstyle and clothing. Sometimes such records provide clues to a pattern of misbehavior or hateful attitudes that persist through an individual’s lifetime. Other times (is it too optimistic to hope “most of the time”?) obnoxious images do not demonstrate permanently ingrained character defects but are examples of those regrettable moments each of us has experienced on the way to figuring out who we want to be.

How should the leaders of educational institutions evaluate these cases? Taking the trouble to understand context is time-consuming and complicated but seems fundamental to fairness. And demonstrating fairness in campus decision-making is as important a part of our educational mission as anything we do in the classroom.

I suggest that institutional leaders consider four important questions in determining how severely to judge individuals in these cases.

  1. What were the values of the time when the image was created? It is hard to think that there was ever a time when blackface or KKK robes were not offensive, but the question must be asked. Young people are raised in a social context that tells them what is acceptable and what is not. We hope our society progresses, but it is not fair to project current standards backwards in time.

  1. Was the individual old enough to know better? States allow teenagers to drive at 16, vote and enlist in the military at 18, drink at 21. At what age do we expect mature judgment to kick in? In high school? College? Medical school? When employed full-time in one’s career? Surely it is fair to ask that question. Of course, individuals do not mature at the same pace, but at a certain point, it is necessary and just to hold them accountable for their choices.

  1. Does the incident represent the tip of an iceberg of misbehavior that appears throughout the life that follows, or does the individual’s subsequent life and career demonstrate a commitment to our shared values? Has the SCOTUS nominee left a trail of sexual abuse victims? Is the admission dean’s Confederate flag photo a fair representation of her achievements in building a diverse student body at the institution where she works? Does the governor’s record on civil rights belie the implication of the appalling yearbook photo? Do the trustee’s decades of positive impact on his alma mater suggest that the costume party was a one-off incident?

  1. Finally, what about the individual’s own perspective on his/her past behaviors? Does it matter that the trustee who attended the Hogan’s Heroes party has apologized for the pain that his costume may have caused? How do we weigh the governor’s mixed messages about how the photo came to appear on his yearbook page? Does the admissions dean recognize the disgust felt by many Americans at the display of the Confederate flag? Does the SCOTUS nominee demonstrate believable concern for the rights and dignity of women? Current society often dismisses apologies out of hand. Can’t leaders of educational institutions determine when an apology is sincere and absolution should be granted?

As someone who has made his fair share of mistakes and tried to learn from them I know this is how I would hope to be judged. If those who lead educational institutions are as committed to fairness as they are to diversity and inclusion, they should make a good faith effort to consider the entirety of an individual’s career, contributions, and behavior when assessing such incidents. Not to do so would represent a failure to model fairness to the members of our communities– and invite a backlash that will, in time, give the truly culpable a free pass.