So let’s start today with the end in mind. Let’s “reverse engineer” — noting the solid engineering schools across the country — including Harvard — as we start where we typically end… with ten questions already in mind…
- What are we doing?
- Can we no longer tolerate moral difference?
- If one person engages in a legal activity that is perceived as “trauma-inducing” to another, must the first person be stopped?
- Is what’s trauma-inducing for one therefore trauma-inducing for all?
- Can you or I decide what’s right for everyone else?
- Is everyone deserving of due process?
- Does the “unpopular defendant” deserve legal representation?
- Are collegiate administrations exuding wisdom on the college campus?
- Are we teaching twenty-somethings how to grow up?
- And what’s the right response to a protest?
On Saturday Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana removed spouses Ron Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson from their respective dean positions on campus. They were co-faculty dean of Winthrop House. They were also the first African-Americans to serve in this position.
Sullivan has an extensive, admirable, professional resume — including roles as an advisor to then Sen. Barack Obama on criminal justice issues and representation of Michael Brown’s family in their suit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri. Sullivan’s past clients have included accused murderers and terrorists, consistent with the constitutional right that any accused of a crime deserves legal representation.
In the past year, no less, Sullivan also signed on to serve as part of the legal team representing Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer who now stands accused of multiple rape and sexual assault charges. Note that for many, Weinstein is the face behind the commencement of the #MeToo movement. What he is accused of doing is vicious and vile.
Some students then proceeded to launch a protest, demanding Sullivan’s removal from Harvard’s Winthrop House. One called his presence “deeply trauma-inducing.” As the New York Times wrote, “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.” The point was that Sullivan’s credibility was not only damaged, but he was now deemed incapable of supporting or serving. He should thus not be allowed to oversee the Harvard house since he chose to represent the accused.
Note the following two, editorial responses. First, from Reason, which leans moderately right:
“… This is a disaster. The administration has endorsed the ridiculous notion that serving as legal counsel for a person accused of sexual misconduct is itself a form of sexual misconduct, or at the very least contributes to sexual harassment on campus. It is no exaggeration to say that Khurana has undermined one of the most important principles of modern, enlightened justice. He should be ashamed of himself.
By caving to the mob, Harvard has shown student-activists that it takes seriously their demands for a kind of broadly-defined safety that includes protection from ideas they don’t like. This outcome will undoubtedly embolden them.”
And second from The Atlantic, which leans moderately left:
“… Harvard administrators were warned about the unavoidable conflict between upholding an important civic norm — that legal representation for even the most reviled is a service to the community, not a transgression against it — and giving in to the demands of the undergraduates most aggrieved by their faculty dean’s choice of clients. And rather than infer a responsibility of the extremely privileged to uphold civic norms for the benefit of those in society who most need them, this institution, which purports to educate future leaders, chose to prioritize transient discomfort felt by its most aggrieved students…
… Protecting the norms around the right to counsel is orders of magnitude more important than the ‘unenlightened or misplaced’ discomfort of some Harvard undergraduates — discomfort rooted in difficulty tolerating moral difference…”
The moderate right and left seem to agree. So let’s revisit the question…
What are we doing?