Paul L. Caron
Dean


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Randall Kennedy: Harvard Betrays A Law Professor — And Itself

New York Times op-ed:  Harvard Betrays a Law Professor — and Itself, by Randall Kennedy (Harvard):

Misguided students believe that defending Harvey Weinstein makes Ronald Sullivan unfit to be their dean. Apparently the university agrees.

I have been a professor at Harvard University for 34 years. In that time, the school has made some mistakes. But it has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did this past weekend. At the center of the controversy is Ronald Sullivan, a law professor who ran afoul of student activists enraged that he was willing to represent Harvey Weinstein.

Mr. Sullivan is my friend and colleague. He is the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and the architect of a conviction-review program in Brooklyn that has freed a score of improperly convicted individuals. He is also a sought-after lawyer who has represented plaintiffs (including the family of Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer fueled the Black Lives Matter movement) as well as defendants (including Rose McGowan, the actress who faced drug charges and is, ironically, one of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers).

In addition to his work as a professor and a lawyer, Mr. Sullivan, with his wife, Stephanie Robinson, has served for a decade as the faculty dean of Winthrop House, an undergraduate dormitory where some 400 students live.

As a faculty dean, Mr. Sullivan is responsible for creating a safe, fun, supportive environment in which students can pursue their collegiate ambitions. Winthrop House is meant to be a home away from home; faculty deans are in loco parentis. Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson are expected to attend to the students as counselors, cheerleaders, impresarios and guardians. ...

Enraged by Mr. Sullivan’s work on behalf of Mr. Weinstein, a cadre of students at Winthrop, and in other parts of the university as well, demanded the lawyer’s ouster, asserting that his choice of client undermined their confidence in his ability to be properly attuned to their thoughts and feelings. Some said that Mr. Sullivan’s choice was nothing less than “trauma-inducing.”

From the outset of the dispute, which began in January when Mr. Sullivan joined Mr. Weinstein’s team of lawyers (he has recently withdrawn from active participation), Harvard authorities have evinced sympathy with the position voiced by the student dissidents. “I take seriously the concerns that have been raised from members of the College community regarding the impact of Professor Sullivan’s choice to serve as counsel for Harvey Weinstein on the House community that he is responsible for leading as a faculty dean,” the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, remarked in an email to students in February.

A few weeks later, after protests that included vandalism (spray-painted graffiti on university buildings included the slogans “Our rage is self-defense” and “Whose side are you on?”), Dean Khurana initiated a review of “the climate” at Winthrop House, including asking students in a questionnaire whether they found the dormitory “sexist” or “non-sexist.” Some onlookers saw the move as a predetermined predicate for wrangling Mr. Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal.

They were right. On Saturday, Dean Khurana announced that Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson would no longer be deans of the college, citing their “ineffective” efforts to improve “the climate” at Winthrop. ...

The upshot is that Harvard College appears to have ratified the proposition that it is inappropriate for a faculty dean to defend a person reviled by a substantial number of students — a position that would disqualify a long list of stalwart defenders of civil liberties and civil rights, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. ...

Suppose atheist students claimed that they did not feel “safe” confiding in a faculty dean who was an outspoken Christian or if conservative students claimed that they did not feel “safe” confiding in a faculty dean who was a prominent leftist. One would hope that university officials would say more than that they “take seriously” the concerns raised and fears expressed. One would hope that they would say that Harvard University defends — broadly — the right of people to express themselves aesthetically, ideologically, intellectually and professionally. One would hope that they would say that the acceptability of a faculty dean must rest upon the way in which he meets his duties, not on his personal beliefs or professional associations. One would hope, in short, that Harvard would seek to educate its students and not simply defer to vague apprehensions or pander to the imperatives of misguided rage.

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2019/05/randall-kennedyharvard-betrays-a-law-professor-and-itself.html

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Comments

The works of the professor are not at issue here and are not necessary to bring up. However, the role of defense attorneys in the minds of those who are being trained in law is at issue. Even the worse scum is entitled to legal representation. That constitutional right has not been adequately explained to students who are supposed to be taught law. That should be the focus.

Rather than firing anyone or inviting students to leave school, Harvard could have used this as a teaching tool to explain our system of justice, presumption of innocence, and right to counsel. I give the university administration and its professors a failing grade.

Posted by: Woody | May 15, 2019 12:24:56 PM

"I have been a professor at Harvard University for 34 years. In that time, the school has made some mistakes. But it has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did this past weekend"

Call me crazy but I think Harvard's aborted billion dollar Alston science campus plans a decade ago, in conjunction with losing a third of its endowment and most of its on-hand liquid assets at the time, was way, way more embarrassing than what's happening now.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 15, 2019 12:57:45 PM

Harvard's decision is ridiculous and likely based on its financial interests. Go into any boardroom and you'll see that the decision makers do not care about moral or ethical principles. They care about the bottom line, and in Harvard's view, the decision to oust Sullivan was likely based on its view that retaining him would be more costly (e.g., reputational harm, matriculation of future applicants). Academics who opine about the moral consequences of university decisions fail to realize that a university's mission is secondary to its profit margin. Welcome to the real world.

Posted by: Adam Lamparello | May 15, 2019 5:32:50 PM

Kennedy is a one-man truth squad.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | May 16, 2019 4:26:18 AM

@UN -- But didn't most everyone lose one-third of their invested assets during the financial crisis, and didn't we all recover nicely just like Harvard? And didn't many of us postpone various spending projects as a consequence, but eventually re-start them just as Harvard is doing with its Allston expansion? Are we all to be embarrassed or something?

Posted by: Mike Petrik | May 19, 2019 5:52:13 AM

@Mike Petrik,

"But didn't most everyone lose one-third of their invested assets during the financial crisis, and didn't we all recover nicely just like Harvard? "

Funny you should posit that; the WSJ has a feature this morning on how Millennials will probably never financially recover from the Great Recession, whether in wages, wealth, or career track. Not everyone is as lucky as Harvard, who had access to tap massive lines of credit to be able to pay its bills in absence of endowment returns.

The Allston expansion is not nearly as ambitious now.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 20, 2019 6:29:48 AM