More about the Sullivan case at Harvard

The fallout continues from Harvard’s firing of Law School professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson from being “faculty deans” (student mentors at residential dorms) at Winthrop House. (They were Harvard’s first African-American house deans.)  Despite Harvard’s conclusion, after a “climate survey” of students in Winthrop House, that there were other issues in the House, it’s pretty clear that Sullivan’s firing was due to student unrest occurring after Sullivan took on Harvey Weinstein as a client. That led to student demonstrations, graffiti (e.g., “Our rage is self-defense”), and, of course, claims of trauma.

In other words, despite Sullivan’s history of defending people on all sides of the political spectrum—including the family of Michael Brown—the students, unable to comprehend that a lawyer doesn’t necessarily agree with the view or accusations of a client he’s taken on, drew the line at Harvey Weinstein. Representing him, they implied, is an unforgivable sin, certainly disqualifying Sullivan from dealing with students at Winthrop House. After all, they argued, how could someone defending the odious Weinstein possibly understand a student who was sexually harassed or assaulted?

The sad part is that, rather than educate students about this principle, Harvard decided to cave in to student outrage and fire—or rather not renew the contracts of—Sullivan and Robinson. The main figure behind this shameful decision is the Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana. (He’s responsible for several misguided and woke decisions, like penalizing Harvard students for joining non-Harvard-affiliated “finals clubs”, which are single sex for both men and women.)

In today’s New York Times, another black Law School professor, Randall Kennedy, defends his colleague and castigates Harvard for firing Sullivan. It’s an eloquent defense of principles of legal representation as well as a critique of all college administrators who would rather truckle to the student mob than educate them. (Click on screenshot below.)

I’ll put up just two quotes:

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.


  1. Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Its frightening to see the mechanisms for show trials fully present in modern liberal democracy. We arent there yet, of course–but those mechanisms sure are.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I really like that third paragraph from Pinker. Right on point. I wonder if the Harvard Law School ever covers Public Defenders in the legal business?

  3. Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    While I can sympathize with the overall argument against Sullivan’s firing, I do want to point out an unreasonable analogy stated by Randall Kennedy in his NYT article and quoted here.

    He compares an atheist student feeling unsafe with a Christian dean with a hypothetical rape victim seeking help from a dean who defended Harvey Weinstein. First, atheists really are not under attack from Christians in this country. I almost welcome the opportunity to defend atheism from the door-to-door Christians. On the other hand, students really do get raped and it does involve safety. It should be a concern that they feel safe to go to their dean. While I acknowledge that the protestors’ motives are probably not pure, and we can argue that legal defense of a rapist is not at all the same as moral defense of a rapist, this still should be a concern.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      If we were to judge an attorney by his clients Perry Mason would be the best as all his clients were innocent. They may have been on trial for some terrible crimes but Perry got them off.

      • Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        I understand, and agree, with the argument but I’m not a young student and haven’t been raped. While we can agree with the intellectual argument, I still would not deny a (admittedly hypothetical) raped student their fears.

        • DrBrydon
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          A defense attorney who represents a murderer is not condoning murder. Students, citizens generally, need to learn this.

          • Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            Sure, law students need to learn this but are you going to rebuke a rape victim for not yet reaching that level of understanding? While being on Weinstein’s defense team does not mean that Sullivan must condone his behavior but it also doesn’t prove that he doesn’t. It is not hard to imagine a defense attorney with bad morals. I strongly suspect that he doesn’t but that is not the issue.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          I would deny any student that fear if it were unfounded. Who the lawyer has as a client is the whole point here – you should not judge him by his clients. If it makes you fear, then there is something wrong with you.

    • Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      That implies that because Sullivan is defending Weinstein, he can’t be sympathetic to a student who was raped or sexually harassed. I think Harvard needs to fight that attitude, not give in to it. Maybe the comparison isn’t perfect, but the point is the same.

      • Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I understand the argument and sympathize with it. Still, I hesitate to insist that a rape victim must agree. What if the rape occurs on the student’s first day? Are we going to insist on turning the experience into a legal learning moment? If a house dean is required to be helpful to a raped student, it is not an unreasonable requirement that they err on the side of caution in their choice of clients.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Sorry to have to say this but you are bending over backward to be an apologist. And you are assuming something we don’t know. Because a person was raped does not normally have anything to do with the client someone takes. If this thin idea is why we give the guy a boot then we are really screwed up. This rape victim could be in fear because the rapist was black, so should we fire the black lawyer??

          • Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

            I appreciate your point but would it not be a case of common sense, it could be the fact it is a man she ( for simplicity) has to deal with. My point is the dean in this hypothetical case would stand down and refer the individual to some other appropriate sanctioned staff member. Perhaps it cant work like this i would not know.

        • Adam M.
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          I think your point is a good one, but limited. Surely there is more than one person in the university that such a student could turn to? They wouldn’t be forced to go to Sullivan or else keep quiet.

          • Posted May 15, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            If that is normally the case, that the student has a choice of who to consult, then it is a good point.

            • Posted May 15, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

              Why don’t victims go straght to the police?

              • Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

                I’m sure they can go straight to the police if they prefer.

              • Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:31 am | Permalink

                I think they should. University authorities are not prepared and authorized to deal with a violent crime (or any crime for that matter).

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          I may well be mistaken and my comment is garbled, but I think you’re making an invalid argument from the particular to the general, because what may be true for one rape victim doesn’t necessarily hold for every rape victim. (I’ve been raped and never thought what you assert about rape victims.) This fight goes well beyond Weinstein and the sensitivities of victims of rape and the fact that, whether or not anyone likes it, a defense lawyer is compelled to defend a client accused of a reprehensible crime, irrespective of the factual truth of the accusation.

          I think that there’s a deeper (meta?) problem: the inability of many, sadly, if not most,perhaps all to make the distinction between the subjective and the objective. I frequently find that when I make a statement about anything that can be controversial, the listener assumes that I espouse the prejudice or negative view, regards me with hostility and tries to shame me. Another example, if I say I don’t like something (say strawberry ice cream) it doesn’t mean that I consider that thing inherently bad; it’s just my personal preference. This mentality is infuriating, and the one who objects to my words usually takes umbrage and refuses to listen to my plea that I’m simply speaking about something, pointing something out, or expressing my personal taste, not condemning something out of hand and fundamentally. Here, I, too, am arguing from the particular to the general, but I can defend this argument.

          I recently made a statement about a schizophrenic, and was regarded as criticizing the mentally ill person in particular and schizophrenics in general. I was simply making an observation, not criticizing this person or the mentally ill across the board. In fact, I wasn’t even criticizing the person, simply making an observation that the person in question spoke a ‘word salad’ that I found difficult and sometimes impossible to understand. I’m not going to apologize for stating my inability to understand the person.

          The inability and unwillingness to make these kinds of distinctions, I think is pervasive. I think it’s something wired in the human brain. It’s also an excellent and much deployed weapon in the woke folks’ arsenal, because of their inability and unwillingness to comprehend the distinction. The matter of Sullivan vs. the Snowflakes is an apt illustration of that.

          • Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

            Jenny: One thing I have heard about rape victims is that they all react differently to the crime and, of course, the crime itself varies across cases. With respect, I offer that how you react to rape is but a single data point. The discussion here is really about policy, not a particular case of rape. While such policy doesn’t have to suit everyone, it should be aimed at the average rape victim or, even better, those victims most in need of help. It’s a judgement call, of course.

            My argument is NOT about satisfying the snowflakes but the potential victims that may seek help from the house dean. Of course, I have no idea whether they fired Sullivan from his house dean position using anything like my argument stated here. They might well have caved to the snowflakes. If so, then they made the right decision for the wrong reason.

            I also have no idea of what guidelines were given to Sullivan for the position. He could have violated them for all I know.

            I am only making this point in the abstract. I don’t know enough to make a truly informed argument. I would certainly not choose this hill to die on. (First time I’ve ever used that phrase.)

            • Jenny Haniver
              Posted May 15, 2019 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

              I was also speaking in the abstract; and in service of that, both of us resorted to particulars, though different sorts of particulars, one directly personal, one a particular example. I think that each of us thinks that the other is committing a categorical fallacy; and I, too would “certainly not choose this hill to die on.” It’s also the first time that I’ve ever used that phrase.

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      A University of Minnesota news release of a couple of years ago: “Ten years ago University of Minnesota sociologists conducted research showing that, among a long list of racial and religious minority groups, atheists were the most disliked group of people in the United States. Last month they followed up with new research that shows that Americans still have negative opinions of atheists and the non-religious.”

      Atheists are not under physical attack, but try running for any public office whatsoever while announcing a refusal to believe in Big Daddy in the sky. In fact, despite the lack of a single case of bombing, mass shooting, or vehicle mass ramming by a militant atheist, Pew polls show that atheists remain virtually tied with Muslims for unpopularity with the general American public.

      So yes, an atheist might be justified in feeling a little, uhhh, hesitant about consulting a religious Dean about anything. But we do manage to handle it.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        Hell, even Honest Abe and TJ (my bet for the two presidents least likely to have harbored supernatural beliefs) felt it incumbent upon themselves to pay lip service to religion now and again.

        Of the 45 men who have held the office of the US presidency, 44 have been nominal Protestants of some kind or another. There’s been but one Catholic and no Jews or members of any other non-Christian religion. An open atheist would have the steepest climb to achieve our highest office, no doubt.

        • Posted May 15, 2019 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          I suppose that if atheists cluster together, they could elect some lower positions (e.g. mayors).

          • Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

            I suspect many politicians are atheists but don’t admit it, or they aren’t very religious and pretend to share their parents’ religion.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted May 15, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

            That’s probably true. It’s also how the first generations of Irish-Catholic immigrants got their toehold in American politics, too.

  4. Charles Sawicki
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    The removal of Sullivan in these circumstances sets an awful precedent of caving in to the whiny woke. If he had other problems with the students he supervised they should have been investigated much earlier. The certainly should at least have been detailed in their dismissal.

  5. DrBrydon
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    In cases where there are unpopular defendants, either because of the person or the crime, we must be doubly sure to see that all the safeguards of their rights are employed and respected. Above all, we must not be influenced by the mob.

  6. A C Harper
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    One sentence from Razib Khan’s article mentioned in the posting above:

    Nature is not wish fulfilment; reality is not constructed by social ideologies.

    It seemed appropriate.

  7. Posted May 15, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    How much freedom to pick a “house” to live in do Harvard students have?

  8. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 15, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Poster #4 notes that Prof. Sullivan’s removal from Winthrop House “sets an awful precedent of caving in to the whiny woke.” I cannot resist pointing out again that Dean Khurana’s
    specialization at the Harvard Business School was—wait for it—leadership! So, perhaps Harvard is intending to lead the way in the category of caving in the whiny woke.

    But of course it is not. Yale, Evergreen, Williams, etc. have already led the way. Far from setting a precedent, Dean Khurana is following the administrative herd. But there are a few exceptions, even if these unusual administrators are not officially designated experts on “leadership”.

  9. peterschaeffer
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    “Why should we trust what academics say on climate change, or vaccine safety, or gun control?”

    No sensible person would.

    “Everyone knows that universities are echo chambers of political correctness, with no commitment to impartiality or principle.”

    Depressingly true and Pinker knows it. Quote from Pinker (in 2003)

    “One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe. A third is the inevitable reaction: a culture of “politically incorrect” shock jocks who revel in anti-intellectualism and bigotry, emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

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