Revelations and Interpretations to the Secret Court of 1920

In 2002, a researcher from The Crimson, the school's undergraduate daily newspaper, came across a box of files labeled "Secret Court" in the University Archives. After a protracted campaign on the part of the paper's staff, the university released five hundred documents relating to the Court's work. An article by Amit R. Paley in The Crimson's weekly magazine Fifteen Minutes reported the 1920 events on November 21, 2002. Though the University insisted on redacting the names of those under investigation, six researchers at the paper were able to identify most through research in other records.

Harvard University's President Lawrence H. Summers responded to that story with these words:

These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind. 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. Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have.

An editorial in The Crimson two weeks later called on the university to grant "posthumous honorary degrees" to those expelled and not allowed to return. It also charged that by failing to reveal the names of the students involved "the University implies that they were accused of some legitimate transgression."

In a letter to the editor the next week, Gladden J. Pappin, a Harvard junior and editor of a conservative campus magazine, the Harvard Salient, objected to the editorial's proposed degrees and called the Court's work "a very appropriate disciplinary move." He also called for the administration to "reestablish standards of morality" and punish violators, noting that "Such punishments would apply to heterosexuals, of course, but even more so to homosexuals, whose activities are not merely immoral but perverted and unnatural." In a similar vein, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan wrote: "Harvard appears to have quietly expelled a few deviates while avoiding a public scandal that would have ruined their reputations and damaged Harvard's good name. What did Harvard do wrong?...Harvard has not only turned its back on its Christian past, it has just renounced its Christian roots as poisoned and perverted." Two editors of the Salient resigned over the letter.

A book-length study of the Court's work Harvard's Secret Court (St. Martin's Press, 2005) was written by William Wright. More of a popular dramatization than a history, the book recounts the Court's work in considerable detail, but also includes imagined conversations and considerable speculation. Where only the notes of an interrogation survive, the author reconstructs the questions and even characterizes the tone of voice of the questioners.

In 2008, Michael Van Devere wrote, produced, and directed a different kind of dramatization: a film based on the Court's work called Perkins 28: Testimony From the Secret Court Files of 1920. The film consists of re-enactments of 9 of the Court's interrogation sessions and uses a cast of Harvard undergraduates. The screenplay uses the Court's documents as its starting point.

In 2010, a movement called "Their Day in the Yard," aiming to petition Harvard University to grant posthumous honorary degrees to the expelled students, launched a Facebook page and a website. On February 28, 2012, the University said in a statement that it "does not award posthumous degrees except in the rare case of a student who completes all academic requirements for the degree but dies before the degree has been conferred." The Harvard Crimson reported that at least 28 posthumous degrees were granted to former students who did not complete their academic requirements before dying in World War I.

Two stage works dramatizing the Court and the affected students have been presented in New York. In 2010, VERITAS, by Stan Richardson, was presented at the New York International Fringe Festival, and in 2011 Classic Stage Company presented Unnatural Acts: Harvard's Secret Court of 1920, conceived by Tony Speciale and created by members of the Plastic Theatre.