May 15, 2019

RANDALL KENNEDY: Harvard Betrays A Law Professor — And Itself.

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. . . .

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.

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 a lawyer for Mr. Weinstein. Let’s assume the good faith of such declarations (though some are likely mere parroting). Even still, they should not be accepted simply because they represent sincere beliefs or feelings.

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. . . .

The central force animating the drama has been student anger at anyone daring to breach the wall of ostracism surrounding Mr. Weinstein, even for the limited purpose of extending him legal representation. They want to make him, a person still clothed with the presumption of innocence, more of an untouchable before trial than those who have been convicted of a crime. . . . Harvard officials are certainly capable of withstanding student pressure. This time, though, they don’t want to.

A friend on Facebook points out that every male student charged with sexual harassment can now claim discrimination: If Harvard will fire a Dean for simply acting as a defense lawyer for someone accused of sexual misconduct, how can anyone expect its own disciplinary procedures to be administered fairly?

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