Did student pressure force the University to drop celebrated criminal law scholars as faculty deans?
Over the weekend, while fathers were finding last minute Mother’s Day gifts, Harvard announced that one of their most celebrated criminal law scholars, Ronald Sullivan, and his wife Stephanie Robinson, who also teaches in the Law School, would not be renewed as faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s 12 residential houses on campus.
The decision comes immediately on the heels of a vigorous student-led campaign, protesting Sullivan’s decision to join the legal defense team for Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who faces hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment, assault and rape. As the New York Times reported, the University was “bowing to months of student pressure.” But were they?
At first glance it appears so. It looks like yet another instance of a university conceding to “the Great Awokening”. It’s an almost perfect cautionary tale about Harvard returning to its Puritan roots to discipline and punish those wearing the Scarlet Letter — only to undermine the most basic aspects of justice. The first African-American faculty dean of a residential house at Harvard was shouted out of office for being “unclean”, representing the very mark of Cain in the #MeToo movement.
The only problem with this story — the story I wanted to write — is that it might be too perfect.
It is possible, even after a long history of representing high-profile criminal clients — including the New England Patriots’ tight-end Aaron Hernandez, who Sullivan defended in a 2017 double murder trial — that Harvard suddenly decided a criminal lawyer could no longer serve as faculty dean because he was representing a criminal. But does that add up?
The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, has an intriguing back-story which raises some fascinating questions about why the University made the decision to sack Sullivan as faculty dean of Winthrop House.
Harvard charges faculty deans with creating a home for students beyond that of a dorm. For three out of their four years at the College, most students eat, sleep, and socialize in their house. “The Houses serve as the foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College,” according to the Dean of Students Office’s website.
But seven current and former Winthrop staff, including tutors, told The Crimson in interviews conducted over the past three months that they experienced a culture of fear while they worked or lived in the House — fear of being chastised in front of their colleagues, fear of damage to their career prospects, and fear of being fired.
This account is based on interviews with 14 people with direct knowledge of the culture of Winthrop House. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from Sullivan and Robinson, both of whom are major figures in the legal profession.
The story highlights the testimony of a former house manager who alleges that Deans Sullivan and Robinson were narcissists who demanded total loyalty, creating a “with us or against us” culture among staff members serving the residential community. It’s a typical “hostile workplace environment” story up until a few months ago.
The complaints prior to Sullivan announcing he was joining Weinstein’s legal defense team go back several years, and a former staff member confirmed that there was “always a sort of threatening environment around speaking up about anything.”
Staff turn-over seems to have been a major issue at Winthrop House during his tenure. Dean Sullivan went through no less than nine house managers in a decade, when all the other residential houses employed only one, or two.
(In a statement, Sullivan and Robinson said they were “surprised and dismayed” by Harvard’s decision and would “now take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options”.)
Does Sullivan still sound like the innocent victim of the cult of the Great Awokening? I wanted him to, but now I’m left wondering.
Perhaps both things can be true. What if a significant percentage of the staff really detests Sullivan, and so have been building their case to the University for years? And what if the students are so perfectly devoted to the cult of political correctness that their protest really is the insane thing that it appears to be? It’s a perfect storm.
If both of those things can be true, what motivated the University’s decision? Was it really about Harvey Weinstein? Did they just surrender the very idea of due process, innocent until proven guilty, and indeed the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution itself to the gods of wokeness? Or did they seize an opportunity not to renew a problematic dean that they were already inclined to replace? And here I think the answer is the same: both things can be true.
This doesn’t reflect well on anyone at Harvard. Least of all the university administration who have permitted their own students to provide the worst possible rationale for a decision that might well have been perfectly justified. The impression is given that, at Harvard, the malevolent let the stupid lead. This is how the dragons eat their own tails.