Harvard surrenders to the #MeToo mob: black dean to leave prestigious post

Something extraordinary happened at Harvard yesterday: a black professor who had done nothing wrong was removed from a prestigious position that carries the title of “dean.” In the process, the implicit pecking order among grievance-mongering identity groups was clarified, even though fig leaves were employed to provide deniability to the administrators who delivered the blow.

First, the basic facts, via a New York Times article (non-paywall version) by Kate Taylor:

Harvard said on Saturday that a law professor who is representing Harvey Weinstein would not continue as faculty dean of an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, bowing to months of pressure from students.

The professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, who is a lecturer at the law school, have been the faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses for undergraduate students, since 2009. They were the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history.

But when Mr. Sullivan joined the defense team of Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, in January, many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Mr. Weinstein is scheduled to go to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges.

Winthrop House (Photo credit: Nick Allen)

At the most visible and obvious level, this is an outrage. A fundamental principle of law is that everyone – even those hated by howling mobs – deserves a capable defense. An attorney is not culpable for the alleged crimes of the defendant being represented. Punishing a lawyer who also is on the faculty for representing someone that some students detest appears to violate this fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence. I am sure that many at Harvard Law School are outraged and shamed by the way this appears to the public.

Harvard’s fig leaf

But Harvard carefully applied a fig leaf covering the ugly parts of the story. Officially, representing Weinstein has nothing to do with the cause for not renewing (i.e., not “firing”) Sullivan from his role as faculty dean at Winthrop House.

On Saturday, the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, sent an email to students and staff members at Winthrop House, informing them that he would not renew the appointments of Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson as faculty deans after their terms end on June 30. Mr. Khurana said in his email that the decision was informed “by a number of considerations.”

“Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college,” he wrote. “The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. I have concluded that the situation in the house is untenable.”

You see, it was the “climate” at Winthrop House that was the issue, and the “lack of presence” not Weinstein as a client. And, as Joey Garrison reveals in USA Today, the fig leaf is substantially bolstered because some students have in the past complained about Sullivan:

The Harvard Crimson reported this week that more than a dozen Winthrop tutors, students and staff have brought concerns about Sullivan and Robinson to Harvard administrators over the past three years. The complaints have involved questions about their leadership, a "revolving door" of staff administrators at the house, and "threats" to push out residents deemed as disloyal by Sullivan and Robinson. 

Now, here is some Harvard-specific context (I spent almost 20 years there as a grad student and faculty member in two different faculties -- Arts & Sciences and Business).

The “faculty deans” at residential houses are provided (nice) apartments and serve as a kind of combination counselor and mentor to the students who live there. The undergraduates at Harvard College live at one of 12 residential “houses” – really, dormitories with their own dining and other facilities that help them have a smaller cohort of close friends, much like a small liberal arts college provides, while retaining the advantages of a large urban university. Undergraduates tend to identify with their houses, and when I was there, various stereotypes existed.

Until 2016, the faculty residents at the Houses were called “masters” not “deans,” which is a better indication that the role is more of in loco parentis than a high-powered academic function, as the new title “faculty dean” rather misleadingly (in my opinion) connotes.  Harvard College undergraduates are regarded as the core of the university, and the opportunity to mentor the future ruling class confers prestige and opportunity on faculty drawn fromt he other professional faculties. 

I bet that many AT readers can predict why the title of “master” was rejected. That’s right:

… the new name … acknowledged ongoing critiques of the changes, which Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced in early December after House leaders unanimously agreed to change their title. Some noted that the term “master” could be associated with slavery.

And here is some other inside baseball. The non-renewal of Sullivan’s position was the prerogative of Harvard College’s Dean Rakesh Khurana, and had no formal input from the Faculty of Law, where Sullivan and his wife actually work (although they probably got some compensation as House Masters Faculty Deans). At Harvard, each of the various faculties – Arts & Sciences, Law, Business, Medicine, and others -- functions independently on most issues. That includes finances and hiring (except for granting tenure which must be approved by the university president). It is sometimes claimed that Harvard (which officially is called “Harvard Corporation”) is the world’s first decentralized corporation. And the fiscal motto of the University’s administration is ETOB – “every tub its own bottom,” which means that richer faculties like Law and Business have their own budgets, and so do poorer faculties like Education, and the poorer ones must make do with their own revenues and endowments.

In this arrangement, Harvard College (which is both part of the Faculty of Arts &Sciences and its own independent administrative unit) can disregard the many concerns of Harvard Law School and its faculty. As the NYT piece notes:

…a number of Mr. Sullivan’s colleagues came to his defense; 52 professors at the law school signed a letter supporting him, saying that his commitment to representing unpopular clients was fully consistent with his roles as law professor and faculty dean, and that Harvard should not pressure him to resign.

Not only are Law School faculty up in arms, so are some blacks:

At the same time, the dispute took on a racial element, with some saying that Mr. Sullivan was being treated unfairly. In a statement in late March, the Harvard Black Law Students Association criticized the decision by the university to conduct a climate review and expressed concern about “the racist undertones evidenced by the disproportionate response to this issue by the university.”

Mr. Sullivan himself suggested that race was playing a role in the handling of the controversy.

“It is not lost on me that I’m the first African-American to hold this position,” he told The Times earlier this year. “Never in the history of the faculty dean position has the dean been subjected to a ‘climate review’ in the middle of some controversy.”

I suspect that this incident is far from over. Harvard being Harvard, there will be serious attempts to keep the conflict in-house and invisible to the wider public. But given the emotionalism, the conflicting identity grievance groups, and the seriousness of the insult delivered to Sullivan (who is keeping his options open), we may be seeing more of this in the media.  

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