Harvard’s Disgrace

Utopian social movements often degenerate into unruly—and sometimes vicious—mobs. During the French Revolution, the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” quickly led to the guillotine as the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror. We are witnessing a softer version of this at Harvard, America’s most elite university, where Ronald Sullivan, an African-American law professor, faces professional retribution for the sin of representing a (presumed innocent) client (Harvey Weinstein) accused of sexual assault. Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz denounced the incident as “The new McCarthyism comes to Harvard.”

Capitulating to the noisy complaints of a small number of undergraduates, and a sit-in protest at the dining hall, the Harvard administration recently announced that, effective June 30, Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson (who likewise teaches at Harvard Law School), would be removed as “faculty deans” at the school’s Winthrop House—a student residence where Sullivan and Robinson also lived.  (Sullivan remains as a law professor.) When appointed as residential deans in 2009, Sullivan and Robinson were the first African-Americans to hold that position at Harvard, according to The Harvard Crimson.  The decision to remove Sullivan and Robinson was made by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who had reportedly joined the students’ sit-in protest, dubbed “Reclaim Winthrop.”

Students absurdly charged that Sullivan’s representation of a criminal defendant charged with sexual assault—by itself—made them feel upset, and contributed to an unsafe and hostile educational environment. Never mind that procedural due process (including the right of criminal defendants to zealous representation) is a critical tenet of the Anglo-American legal system, and that criminal law professors have long practiced criminal defense on the side, without controversy. Never mind that Sullivan previously represented other high-profile clients without incident, including accused terrorists and former New England Patriots tight-end Aaron Hernandez in his 2017 double murder trial. That was then.

The #MeToo movement sweeps away such precedents as inconvenient impediments to achieving a higher state of virtue, just as the Robespierre-led Committee of Public Safety eliminated many “enemies of the people.” It is tempting to ignore the horrors of the French Revolution, or to dismiss them as an aberration of history, but then—as now—idealistic reformers believed with moral certainty in the righteousness of their cause.

The new “enemies of the people” are patriarchy, “white privilege,” and a capitalist system deemed responsible for income inequality and climate change. The amorphous (and broad-based) nature of the perceived foes complicates the identification of their “victims.” In the zero-sum game of identity politics, however, victimhood confers power, so the precise hierarchy of victim status is critically important. Not all victims are equal. Accordingly, “oppressed groups” compete with each other for primacy. The stakes are high. Conventional feminism faces challenges from the LGBT movement. Do “transgender” athletes (who are biologically male) trump the interests of actual women in sports competitions?

At Harvard, the kerfuffle involving Sullivan pits several different groups against each other in the intersectionality sweepstakes: people of color, criminal defendants (once the darling of the ACLU), and feminists. Progressive activists are furious that Sullivan was willing to represent disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein—until recently an influential Democratic donor—against charges of sexual misconduct.  The apex movement du jour—at least on elite college campuses—is #MeToo, and defending Weinstein is somehow more repugnant than representing accused murderers such as O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, as Dershowitz did with nary a complaint in recent decades. Sullivan’s Harvard Law colleague, Charles Ogletree, advocated on behalf of convicted cop killers (such as Troy Davis) without objection from Harvard’s sensitive students. And never mind that Sullivan has announced his withdrawal from Weinstein’s defense team. Too late. The damage has been done. The “trauma” to the delicate student body was irreparable.

Alas, Harvard students—surely the least marginalized group of people on this planet—have gotten “woke.” The moral calculus in progressive circles, which once accorded great importance to protecting the rights of accused criminals and safeguarding the advances of African-Americans, has abruptly changed. Not only must “survivors” of sexual assault always be believed, those accused must not be defended (although different rules apparently apply to Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax). To progressives, consistency—like logic itself—is the hobgoblin of little minds.

This sad spectacle puts our supposedly “elite” institutions in a most unflattering light. University administrators cower in fear of “triggered” students behaving like spoiled children.  Outside of the Ivy League student bubble, Harvard’s cowardly willingness to throw Sullivan and Robinson under the bus has elicited nothing but scorn. Dershowitz declared that Sullivan’s removal was “the worst violation of academic freedom during my 55 year association with Harvard.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf dismissed the concerns of Harvard undergraduates as “discomfort rooted in difficulty tolerating moral difference, not in having to report sexual assault to Sullivan, as some have erroneously suggested.”  Friedersdorf called Sullivan’s removal “shameful” and warned that “Harvard’s decision may deter ambitious young lawyers from undertaking the defense of any potentially controversial client, including indigent men who stand accused of rape or sexual assault. That raises the odds of wrongful convictions, especially among the poor.”

Other commentators were equally disdainful. Legal Insurrection asked

Does Harvard have any idea how damaging this is to their brand? People see this for what it is. Sullivan is being punished because social justice warrior students don’t want Weinstein to be represented by a Harvard law professor. Has no one explained to these students that law professors often take on high profile and controversial cases in order to write about them and use them in their teaching?

Fifty-two members of the Harvard law faculty, understanding the damaging signal represented by Sullivan’s ouster, expressed their public support for their colleague. Legal Insurrection concluded that “This is a sad day for Harvard. They have put the anger of a campus mob ahead of the very foundations of our legal system.”

Reason’s Robby Soave concurred:

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.

Capitulating to the petulant protests of intolerant snowflakes does not create a “safe space”; it defeats the essential purpose of higher education, which is to promote critical thinking, expose students to uncomfortable ideas, and challenge their presuppositions. Harvard’s submission to students’ puerile demands will only embolden the mob, its appetite for power now whetted by success. Now that the “woke” activists at Harvard—seemingly intent on devouring their own—have humiliated an African-American trailblazer committed to civil rights, who will be their next target?

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 15, 2019 at 08:57:07 am

Harvard along with the rest of the Left have created this problem which by the way all mothers that have ever raised a child have had to deal with. To wit, give a kid an inch and he will take a mile. Give in to them and they will take advantage of it. Eventually, you will have the temper tantrums to deal with.

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on May 15, 2019 at 08:57:13 am

[…] Original […]

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Image of Harvard’s Disgrace – Doug Santo
Harvard’s Disgrace – Doug Santo
on May 15, 2019 at 10:05:59 am

Is there no one at Harvard who outranks Khurana and could have overruled him?

Randall Kennedy has an op-ed on this in today's NYT, which is of the same tenor as Pulliam's essay here. But what is really interesting are the comments to Kennedy's piece. If you look at the "NYT Picks," the majority are comments supporting the humiliation and removal of Sullivan. But the "Reader Picks" are almost uniformly in the other direction, outraged by Harvard's and the kids' actions.

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Image of QET
on May 15, 2019 at 10:35:37 am

[…] Mark Pulliam: Harvard’s Disgrace […]

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Image of Hump Day #2: Three Cheers for a Week Half Over! | The Universal Spectator
Hump Day #2: Three Cheers for a Week Half Over! | The Universal Spectator
on May 15, 2019 at 10:40:13 am

Insightful and inspired, as usual. How sad that Harvard, and, in particular, this clueless Dean of the College, seem to have so little regard for what once did make Harvard great. This is the same Dean of the College who, along with the last President of the University, did all they could to do in the Final Clubs, and some other campus organizations, on the grounds that they were guilty of discrimination and preserving elitism and the patriarchy. I blush for my alma mater.

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Stephen Presser
on May 15, 2019 at 11:00:21 am

Thanks for the tip!

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Image of John in DE
John in DE
on May 15, 2019 at 11:07:40 am

If they knew (or, more to the point, had been taught) any history they would know that John Adams represented the British shooters from the Boston Massacre, part of a long tradition of lawyers representing unpopular causes. Tell them this and they would probably identify Adams as a dead white male oppressor, presuming they could identify him at all. And the Boston Massacre? If they knew what it was they couldn't put it in the right century. Disgraceful.

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Richard Werther
on May 15, 2019 at 11:51:03 am

Just confirms who's been running the Times all these years. Surprised that their readership reflects 180 degree difference in opinion...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on May 15, 2019 at 11:54:09 am

Adams? I'm sure they'd accuse him of being just another rich, white slaver...

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Image of OH Anarcho-Capitalist
OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on May 15, 2019 at 13:25:01 pm

So Harvard's sales pitch will be , "Send your brat to Harvard to get spoiled further on the highest level."

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Image of RAM500
on May 15, 2019 at 14:30:50 pm

I read this article as relating stands taken by law students. To the extent that is true, I do not believe any of those students ever will have the courage to be lawyers of the courtroom. Maybe they can represent banks, or corporations, which is honorable work, but a courtroom lawyer must, no matter which side that lawyer represents at present, hold close the possibility and the intention to represent the damned, the dregs, the credibly accused amongst us. Unless they trade in their counterfeit courage for a new understanding, in my judgment, they cannot truly become lawyers.

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on May 15, 2019 at 14:52:48 pm

One problem in an otherwise good article: Unnecessarily identifying Sullivan as an 'African American' both serves as a distraction and frames the issue as the baddies would have it framed.

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Stephen Prescott
on May 15, 2019 at 15:28:54 pm

Funny - an old Master Sergeant, back in the early 1970's, African American and a decorated warfighter friend of mine commented that the potential gains for blacks would be undone by the womens movement AND that eventually women's issues would take precedence over race issues.

My friend barely finished High School but he was both observant AND prescient.
Perhaps, our little SJW snowflakes at Harvard would do well to disregard EVERYTHING they have been taught since High School and emulate this old "grunt."

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Image of gabe
on May 15, 2019 at 16:59:14 pm

When's the last time Harvard accommodated conservative students this way?

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Image of Brendan
on May 15, 2019 at 22:28:10 pm

As a first approximation, the answer is never.

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Image of TMac
on May 16, 2019 at 06:37:36 am

This is the right site for anyone who hopes to find out about this
topic. You realize so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that
I personally would want to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh
spin on a topic which has been written about for many years.
Great stuff, just great!

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on May 16, 2019 at 13:15:05 pm

[…] us start with Sullivan. A black law professor occupying a senior position in one of the most prestigious law schools in […]

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Image of The politically correct rule at Harvard Law – Acton Institute PowerBlog
The politically correct rule at Harvard Law – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on May 23, 2019 at 06:02:39 am

[…] and even the ultimate goal of higher education—pursuit of knowledge itself (if it makes coddled students feel “triggered” or “unsafe”)—have all been sacrificed on the altar of social justice, […]

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Redlining in Reverse

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.