As Americas oldest and wealthiest university, Harvard University has been a source of national pride, indeed a national treasure, always very high on the list of the worlds top schools. Yet recently it committed a blunder of breathtaking proportions, one so egregious that it calls for action not only by Harvard but possibly even beyond.
The Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, fired Ronald Sullivan, longtime faculty dean of Winthrop House. Sullivan was recruited to Harvard Law School by now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, and is Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute. Sullivan is well known for his work in defending literally thousands of individuals accused of major crimes, such as NFL football star Aaron Hernandez. What heinous act led Sullivan (and, by extension, his wife, another Harvard Law instructor, Stephanie Robinson) to be fired from their Winthrop House position? He agreed (although later changed his mind) to represent accused rapist and sexual harasser, Harvey Weinstein in forthcoming criminal proceedings.
Students started protesting, even proclaiming that this act was deeply trauma-inducing and threatening. Admittedly, based on numerous news accounts, Weinstein appears to be one of the worlds most morally flawed individuals. But a basic core value of American liberal democracy is the rule of law, with all accused, even the most heinous, entitled to representation by competent legal counsel. Its as if Dean Khurana said the opinions of unhappy Harvard students count for more than hundreds of years of legal precedent.
Fortunately, many famous liberal icons on the Harvard Law faculty are appalled. Writing in the New York Times, Randall Kennedy said Harvard has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did. Laurence Tribe said, according to Peter Berkowitzs account in Real Clear Politics, Of many blunders, Harvard has made in my 50 years ...here, I recall none worse. Alan Dershowitz weighed in: feeling unsafe is the new mantra for the new McCarthyism..... It is a totally phony argument. Some 52 members of the Harvard Law faculty, in a letter to the Boston Globe, strongly condemned the action as well.
As appalling as all of this is, equally infuriating is the inaction by the Harvard top administration. What should happen?
- Sullivan and Robinson should be reinstated, with apologies, for the humiliation that Harvard has caused them.
- Dean Khurana should be fired as Dean of Harvard College for his attack on a fundamental principle of representative democracy. He should be told to go back to teaching sociology, although this sorry episode reaffirms to me the wisdom of the late Nobel Prize winner Douglass Norths view that great universities shouldnt have sociology departments.
- If the firing of Sullivan occurred with the concurrence of Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, he too should be ousted.
- Harvard should adopt the Chicago Principles affirming the right of free expression, vigorous debate, and supporting the idea that uncomfortable thoughts and their analysis are integral to the learning process. If that doesnt happen, prominent alumni should start raising hell, for example contesting the official slate for election to the Harvard Board of Overseers.
- Students who feel so traumatized by thoughts differing from their own obviously do not belong at a serious university and should be encouraged to transfer elsewhere.
- Universities respond to financial hits. While I hate federal interference in university internal affairs, this incident, if not corrected, should lead to a temporary freeze on consideration of research proposals from the Harvard faculty, and/or the institution of a national research overhead policy limiting overhead payments to 20% of the amount of the research award (something long overdue that should happen independent of the Harvard action).
- Someone should introduce legislation forbidding federal charitable tax deductions to universities with more than $1 million in endowment per student. This would hurt a few other universities as well, but some of them, notably Yale under president Peter Salovey, have behaved almost as badly as Harvard in showing contempt for free expression.
Harvard is adding another nail into the coffin of American higher education. Americas universities are already in trouble, and declining public support will hurt them as they struggle to survive public revulsion over their high costs, limited learning, declining vocational outcomes and, increasingly, contempt for the institutions that made America the greatest country since the nation-state evolved centuries ago.
When the Harvard Crimson sought a response from the university to a statement from the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers condemning the universitys decision to fire Sullivan from his position at Winthrop House, Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane had no comment.