After Harvard fired him as a house dean, Ronald Sullivan responds in the NYT

As you know from reading this site regularly (you do, don’t you?), Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson were fired as deans of Winthrop House (an undergraduate residence) after Sullivan took on Harvey Weinstein as a client. Sullivan was the first African-American house dean in Harvard’s history. (My six posts on the issue can be found here.)

Undergraduates rebelled at the idea that Sullivan would defend an accused sexual predator, and so Harvard, under the direction of Invertebrate Dean Rakesh Khurana, launched a “climate study” of Winthrop House.

While some other problems surfaced in the report, they hadn’t been an issue before, and it was clear to all rational folks that the big problem was Sullivan’s choice of a client. One is apparently not allowed to defend a client who, while being accused of sexual predation, is nevertheless presumed innocent before a trial. That principle seemed to vanish before the nature of accusations against Weinstein.

Sullivan’s and Robinson’s contracts were not renewed, and about 50 law school professors objected to Harvard’s action.

In yesterday’s New York Times (click on screenshot below), Sullivan writes in his own defense. Though he doesn’t say much that I haven’t reported already, his anger, and his disappointment with Harvard, are palpable.

In the text below, Sullivan’s words are indented.

As I’ve mentioned, Sullivan had plenty of bona fides, including defending clients of which the Woke would approve:

The administration’s decision followed reports by some students that they felt “unsafe” in an institution led by a lawyer who would take on Mr. Weinstein as a client.

I am willing to believe that some students felt unsafe. But feelings alone should not drive university policy. Administrators must help students distinguish between feelings that have a rational basis and those that do not. In my case, Harvard missed an opportunity to help students do that.

Consider: During the 10 years I served as faculty dean, I represented survivors of sexual assault as well as people accused of sexual assault. As recently as the fall semester, I served as a special prosecutor in a case against Eric Greitens, a former governor of Missouri, involving sexual assault.

The administration knew full well that for 10 years I had been able to fulfill my duties as a faculty dean — including advising and representing student survivors of sexual assault in the context of Title IX — while representing clients in criminal court. Until this spring, there was never even a whisper of a complaint that I was unable to provide the care and concern that all students concerned with sexual violence deserve.

I find it very hard to believe that students would truly feel “unsafe” with Sullivan as house head. Any woman, for instance, who needed to confide in someone after a rape or episode of sexual harassment, and bridled at seeing Sullivan, could always go to one of Harvard’s numerous counselors or psychologists. Why would she then feel “unsafe” with Sullivan as head of her house? This may be an instance, as someone theorized about Oberlin students’ overreacton in the Gibson case, of social justice warriors, cosseted in a comfortable environment, needing something to rebel against. At least that’s plausible, as surely a Harvard student is rational enough to appreciate that a lawyer doesn’t necessarily endorse the crimes of which his client is accused!

The biggest black mark on Harvard’s record about this episode is the University’s failure to use it as a teaching moment—as a way to impart the lesson given in the final sentence of the previous paragraph. Instead, Harvard, like Oberlin with the Gibson Bakery, simply capitulated to the mob. I blame Dean Khurana and Harvard’s President for taking the easy but shameful route of firing Sullivan and Robinson. Sullivan has no appeal here—except to the readers of the New York Times. Sullivan adds:

I would hope that any student who felt unsafe as a result of my representation of Mr. Weinstein might, after a reasoned discussion of the relevant facts, question whether his or her feelings were warranted. But Harvard was not interested in having that discussion. Nor was Harvard interested in facilitating conversations about the appropriate role of its faculty in addressing sexual violence and the tension between protecting the rights of the criminally accused and treating survivors of sexual violence with respect.

Instead, the administration capitulated to protesters. Given that universities are supposed to be places of considered and civil discourse, where people are forced to wrestle with difficult, controversial and unfamiliar ideas, this is disappointing.

. . . I am profoundly troubled by the reaction of university administrators who are in charge of student growth and development. The job of a teacher is to help students think through what constitutes a reasonable argument. It is a dereliction of duty for administrators to allow themselves to be bullied into unprincipled positions.

And Sullivan’s closing:

Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.

This must change. Until then, universities are doing a profound disservice to those who place their trust in us to educate them.

This brings to mind not only the ignoring of the facts in the Oberlin case, but also the “three great untruths” listed by Greg Lukianoff and Jon Haidt in their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Stetting Up a Generation for Failure.

These untruths, promulgated by teachers, parents, and students themselves, are, according to Lukianoff and Haidt, responsible for driving much of the bizarre behavior we’ve recently seen on campus; I discussed them here. To wit:

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

All three of these are clearly in play in the Sullivan incident. Harvard’s behavior here is reprehensible. It should not be following the students’ outrage, but leading them by teaching them how the law is supposed to work.

Addendum: A friend sent me a photo of this plaque on the wall of the federal courthouse in Boston, and asked, “What part of this don’t they understand?”

h/t: cesar

32 Comments

  1. J Cook
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    How do these kids come to these attitudes?

    • Deodand
      Posted June 25, 2019 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      From their ‘Resident’s Life’ advisors, back in 2007 the University of Delaware got caught running a programme that encouraged students to denounce their parents ideological failings, taught them that race/sexual orientation was the most imporant thing about them and that their purpose in life was to be an activist.

      But in general the idea most of these ‘Immature Adults’ seem to have is that their mental comfort is the most important thing and that science, reason, logic are all ‘social constructs’ created by the White Man to opress and should be replaced with emotion and instinct.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 26, 2019 at 5:56 am | Permalink

        From their ‘Resident’s Life’ advisors, back in 2007 the University of Delaware got caught running a programme that encouraged students to denounce their parents ideological failings,

        I’m sure this vein has been mined by many fiction writers over the centuries, as well as promoted by the Stasi, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Red Guards, and of course, the FBI under J Edgar McCarthy and Joe Hoover.

        their mental comfort is the most important thing and that science, reason, logic are all ‘social constructs’ created by the White Man to opress and should be replaced with emotion and instinct.

        Typical claptrap promulgated by the psychobabbleologist end of the spectrum of lunatics charged with asylum management. Results are, as we can see, as expected.

        • Deodand
          Posted June 26, 2019 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          Here is FIRE’s video from 2009 on the Delaware case, it’s a real eye opener. The people who ran the residence life program were highly regarded.

    • JB
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      Read Haidt and Lukianoff’s book if you want to know how it happened (or at least how the authors believe it happened).

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    If any of these Students intend to make it as lawyers when they get out of school, good luck to that. The first judge that offends them will be the end of their career.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      “The first judge that offends them will be the end of their career.”

      And also perhaps the first judge offended by them. So far it seems judges are not bound by the constraints imposed on K-16 teachers, instructors, professors in dealing with certain self-absorbed, entitled students.

  3. Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I would hope that any student who felt unsafe as a result of my representation of Mr. Weinstein might, after a reasoned discussion of the relevant facts, question whether his or her feelings were warranted.

    ZOMG! The idea that reasoned discussion could trump someone’s feelings is not going to go down well with the Woke Left!

  4. EdwardM
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The comments at the NYT site indicate that there is not a lot of sympathy for Sullivan. I feel it is evidence that Hitchin’s “termites” have been feasting for far to long to save the academy; colleges will be very different places than we used to know.

  5. GBJames
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    sub

  6. Posted June 25, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Harvard teaches law of the jungle!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      So sad that the outside world is more like a jungle than the womb which they’re leaving in their late teens.

  7. John Dentinger
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    For Class Day festivities in 2004, Harvard students invited a professor from the UK to speak to them (and parents & grandparents, etc). This turned out to be the best graduation speech ever given–maybe not to the grandparents, though.
    Would Harvard students re-invite him in 2019?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      Which professor? From the description, I can’t pick out a specific one from the half-dozen or so that I’ve known over the years and there are a few thousand others out there. (Professorships are, of course much less common in Britain than in the US education system – one or two per department, and maybe a hundred per university.

      • John Dentinger
        Posted June 26, 2019 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Well, he billed himself as a Professor of Erbology. Booyakasha!

  8. yazikus
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious to know what jury duty turnout is amongst the college-age demographic. If you want to fulfill a civic duty and have a personal impact on the justice system, there is no better way than jury service.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      What are the penalties for not attending for jury service? In the US?
      (I’ve been told I’m on the list, but never actually called up ; when I did get the notification, I went round to the Proc.Fisc’s office that dealt with such things to explain that I spent extended and unpredictable times out of the country – which was nothing unusual for them – but on the other hand an extended trial wouldn’t be a big problem with my employment. Which they said was fine. And I never got the call to attend. That was before I got a mobile phone, obviously, not that they are much use offshore.)

      • yazikus
        Posted June 26, 2019 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        I think it depends on where you live. I understand that legally they can send for you and compel you to appear, but most departments don’t have funding for that kind of enforcement. I don’t know anyone who has been penalized. And of the folks that do show, the vast majority I’ve spoken to have gotten out by some kind of deliberate admission or lie.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 27, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          Why is there a way out? If it’s a duty, then it’s a duty.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    …. under the direction of Invertebrate Dean Rakesh Khurana …

    Isn’t Khurana also the one punishing students for joining private single-sex clubs?

    Makes him an inveterate invertebrate, no?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      It’s a rude thing to say about invertebrates too.

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    The Harvard students who claimed to feel “unsafe” with Sullivan as a house Dean seem to exhibit the same symptoms as the Oberlin students who felt unsafe with Gibson’s Bakery selling muffins across the street. However, my suspicion is that there really are few students as fragile as these stories (and Jon Haidt’s analyses) suggest. Rather, I suspect that some students are encouraged to use this kind of verbiage by their elders: by faculty advisers and models, and, and administrators, who are propagating a therapeutic approach to education, as well as to everything else.

    We could mull over the reasons for this approach. My guess here is that a Haidt-like analysis of the way our contemporary faculty and administrators were brought up in childhood will not yield a useful explanation. A clue might be that the therapeutic language invests its proponents with special authority—as not merely administrators or professors but as therapists and rescuers—thereby augmenting their status and self-regard.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      A clue might be that the therapeutic language invests its proponents with special authority—as not merely administrators or professors but as therapists and rescuers—thereby augmenting their status and self-regard.

      Psychobabbologists performing their party trick of self-fellatio again.

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think at this point that we have to take an expression of feeling “unsafe” at face value. The students have accepted an idiom that works, but which is really an expression of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Regardless of Sullivan’s woke bona fides, what matters is not any good he’s done, but the fact that he has deviated from a narrative that says that whatever Weinstein did is one of the Worst Things a man could do. Even the suggestion of a defence interferes with the goal of implementing a reign of terror by the Wookies in whixh people will be too afraid to disagree with them.

  12. mlerdau
    Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan’s Op-Ed is an excellent example of why lawyers are called advocates. He worries less about presenting his readers a complete picture than he does about providing a version of the story that paints him in the best possible light. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; it’s what our legal system is built on, and he is a high-functioning practitioner in that system. But there is a lot more information than what he presents. Here’s a fuller take on the situation. https://www.thecrimson.com/…/2019/5/10/winthrop-climate/
    Harvard’s wheels tend to grind very slowly. It not unlikely that this non-renewal of his contract (not a removal) was already in the works.

    • CJColucci
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Indeed. This topic was run into the ground some time ago, with actual reporting eventually cutting through. So why does the Times lease its prestige op-ed real estate to a stale re-litigation by one side.

  13. Posted June 25, 2019 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the best way to understand these self-indulgent students is to read Lord of the Flies.

  14. Yi
    Posted June 26, 2019 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Very good piece. It’s really disappointing what’s going on on campuses right now. Somehow I feel perhaps faculty should be teaching the students some basic understanding of our systems and institutions.

  15. Sastra
    Posted June 26, 2019 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    A decade or so ago the idea that you ought to cut “ toxic people “ out of your life became very popular. It was often supported by stories of abusive, controlling parents or others who, no matter what, simply refused to stop being abusive and controlling. It was right and just, then, to just remove yourself completely from their presence. It was necessary for your mental health. You had ‘permission,’ regardless of what you and others might think about the value of ‘not giving up’ because it’s Your Mother ( or whatever.)

    This reasonable stance started bleeding outwards, I think. If something or someone or a group of someones was Toxic, then that’s that. Cut them off. You don’t take poison. It was self protection. I wonder then whether this at least partly influenced the attitude of the students here and elsewhere.

    • TJR
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      So it’s all the fault of Britney Spears?

      (Ye gods, she’s 37 now).

    • A C Harper
      Posted June 26, 2019 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      A philosopher once said that ‘things’ turn into their opposites. Barter becomes money becomes promises become credit cards (perhaps channelling Heraclitus).

      Or perhaps removing yourself from toxic people is an example of ‘creep’. Many charities over extend their remit by ‘creep’. Governments extend their authority by ‘creep’. Organisations are captured by the concerns of their staff by ‘creep’. (Some) religions gain control by ‘creep’.

      All because each instance of ‘creep’ is so unremarkable – but joined up in a long line…

      Creeps, the lot of them.

    • Posted June 26, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Many things start reasonable and hypertrophy – this analysis seems plausible as one etiology for part of the current mess.


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