Ok, let’s agree that Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of sexual assault or harassment by 87 women, appears to have behaved despicably and unlawfully.
And let’s agree that educational institutions principally exist to dispense knowledge meant to prepare the young to cope in a world where they soon will be the deciders.
Which brings us to a surprisingly disappointing place: Harvard.
Given Harvard’s sterling academic reputation and history of churning out leaders, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that its students be tutored in the unpleasantries that can attend efforts to uphold the nation’s essential principles — the right, say, of every person, however despised, to a legal defense.
But Rakesh Khurana, a specialist in leadership development who is dean of Harvard College, (the university’s undergraduate division) recently offered up a different lesson for students.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is a prominent Harvard Law School professor and director of its Criminal Justice Institute, a specialist in overturning wrongful convictions. Sullivan and his wife, Harvard law lecturer Stephanie Robinson, have been faculty deans, the first African-Americans in Harvard’s history to hold that position, for a decade. They counseled students while acting as in loco parentis to 400 undergrads at a student dormitory. But when Sullivan joined Weinstein’s legal defense team, Harvard lost its bearings.
Some students complained that Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein was “trauma-inducing” and caused them to lose confidence in Sullivan’s ability to be attuned to their feelings about sexual abuse. At the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper’s editorial board opined that “Sullivan Upholds the Law, but Not His Students.” Student graffiti on Sullivan’s residence asked: “Whose side are you on?”
“Yours” should have been Harvard’s unequivocal answer. As in: If Weinstein can be treated as guilty before his trial, so can you.
Instead, the answer from Khurana, who said he took the students’ protests “seriously,” was to remove Sullivan and Robinson from their jobs as deans because “the climate” at the dorm had become “untenable.” By then, Sullivan had resigned from Weinstein’s defense team.
Khurana didn’t make clear what caused him to oust the deans; he didn’t mention the Weinstein controversy. But that became irrelevant: The protesters celebrated the ouster as confirmation that their complaints were justified.
Harvard “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”, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy rightly warned in a New York Times op-ed.
“Student opposition to Mr. Sullivan has hinged on the idea of safety — that they would not feel safe confiding in Mr. Sullivan about matters having to do with sexual harassment or assault given his willingness to serve as lawyer for Mr. Weinstein,” Kennedy wrote.
He was among 52 professors who unsuccessfully petitioned Khurana to support Sullivan and said Harvard “has thoroughly embarrassed itself.”
But Harvard did worse than that. In bungling a teachable moment, it taught the young the wrong lesson about justice.
It’s one thing for indignant young people to make angry, self-righteous demands. Though admittedly tedious, such demands are, after all, a long-standing rite of generational passage for people who still view the world in black or white. Sometimes, their demands are clearly justified.
But it’s quite another matter for a university to cave in to such ill-founded demands as this one. Where are the adults? Hello?
The campaign against Sullivan was led by a British student, Danuski A.K. Mudannayake, design editor at the Crimson. The crux of her argument was that Sullivan should resign as dean because “he cannot protect the integrity of his students” and serve as Weinstein’s attorney.
On this blinkered point, more judicial education might help. She doesn’t live in Sullivan’s dorm but said she hopes to work in the film industry and so the news about Weinstein made her “very afraid.”
Which spotlights the larger question looming over this Ivory Tower dust-up: What’s made so many young people so fear-ridden and self-protective?
In a recent column headlined “Dear Millennials: The Feeling is Mutual,” New York Times columnist Bret L. Stephens lamented “the junior totalitarians of the left” and what he justifiably calls “the worst aspects of millennial culture — the coddled minds and censorious manner.”
The Harvard episode is just one of many recent examples of a reckless “search-and-destroy mission of the call-out culture,” he wrote.
Militant millennials, “specializing in histrionic self-pity and moral self-righteousness… have figured out that … the quickest way to acquire and exercise power is to take offense,” he added.
If he’s right, we must pin our hopes on the blessedly blameless majority of millennials.
Rigid, self-righteous moralizing by the young is hardly new. What’s new is the hostility of many of today’s young to things that challenge their beliefs and their insistence that they need emotional and intellectual “safe spaces.”
This has led to a need for “trigger warnings” about university course materials that might upset trauma victims and marginalized students but also those who may simply find the material objectionable.
“De-platforming” — silencing visiting campus speakers before they can speak — has become a common tactic even though it’s the very antithesis of free speech and intellectual inquiry. It’s not enough to simply avoid listening to offensive speech; that speech must not be permitted.
So it’s fair to ask: What kind of America will these “junior totalitarians” usher in when their turn at the helm arrives?
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.