I have been a professor at Harvard University for 34 years. In that time, the school has made some mistakes. But it has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did this past weekend. At the center of the controversy is Ronald Sullivan, a law professor who ran afoul of student activists enraged that he was willing to represent Harvey Weinstein.
…On Saturday, Dean Khurana announced that Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson would no longer be deans of the college, citing their “ineffective” efforts to improve “the climate” at Winthrop.
Although Dean Khurana declared that his decision was “informed by a number of considerations,” he said nothing in his announcement about the issue that lay at the heart of the controversy: the claim that Mr. Sullivan’s representation of Mr. Weinstein was in and of itself inconsistent with his role as a faculty dean. No wonder the students who campaigned for his dismissal on that basis celebrated the administration’s action.
Harvard College appears to have ratified the proposition that it is inappropriate for a faculty dean to defend a person reviled by a substantial number of students — a position that would disqualify a long list of stalwart defenders of civil liberties and civil rights, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.
Student opposition to Mr. Sullivan has hinged on the idea of safety — that they would not feel safe confiding in Mr. Sullivan about matters having to do with sexual harassment or assault given his willingness to serve as a lawyer for Mr. Weinstein. Let’s assume the good faith of such declarations (though some are likely mere parroting). Even still, they should not be accepted simply because they represent sincere beliefs or feelings.
Suppose atheist students claimed that they did not feel “safe” confiding in a faculty dean who was an outspoken Christian or if conservative students claimed that they did not feel “safe” confiding in a faculty dean who was a prominent leftist. One would hope that university officials would say more than that they “take seriously” the concerns raised and fears expressed. One would hope that they would say that Harvard University defends — broadly — the right of people to express themselves aesthetically, ideologically, intellectually and professionally. One would hope that they would say that the acceptability of a faculty dean must rest upon the way in which he meets his duties, not on his personal beliefs or professional associations. One would hope, in short, that Harvard would seek to educate its students and not simply defer to vague apprehensions or pander to the imperatives of misguided rage.
Now, of course, Harvard authorities are dredging up various supposed delinquencies on Mr. Sullivan’s part. An exposé in The Harvard Crimson refers to allegations that he and his wife were highhanded in their dealings with the staff at Winthrop House. No one is perfect; perhaps there is something to these claims.
But these dissatisfactions, if relevant at all, were not what provoked the student protests that led to Mr. Sullivan’s ouster. The central force animating the drama has been student anger at anyone daring to breach the wall of ostracism surrounding Mr. Weinstein, even for the limited purpose of extending him legal representation. They want to make him, a person still clothed with the presumption of innocence, more of an untouchable before trial than those who have been convicted of a crime. There was no publicized protest at Winthrop House when Mr. Sullivan successfully represented a convicted murderer, Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star, who was acquitted of a separate double murder before killing himself in prison.
Harvard officials are certainly capable of withstanding student pressure. This time, though, they don’t want to. …
Some perspective: the most significant threat to the rule of law in America comes from the would-be authoritarian in the White House. But the Sullivan witch-hunt is just the latest example of how the rule of law is being assaulted from the other side.
Flashback: law students at the City University of New York screaming “Fuck the Law!” at a visiting professor they didn’t agree with.