Harvard Law School has a proud history of tolerance for its law professors sometimes taking on unpopular cases. Felix Frankfurter, a professor until his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1939, played a role in the defense of Nichola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the intensely unpopular duo accused and convicted of terrorism and murder who were likely innocent. More recently, the now-retired Alan Dershowitz often represented widely-loathed figures such as Claus von Bulow (convicted of murdering his wife for her money, reversed) and O.J. Simpson (acquitted of murdering his wife).
This long history, combined with the ethic of the criminal law profession that deems every accused person worthy of what the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution terms “the assistance of counsel for his defence,” has allowed HLS faculty members to represent many of the least beloved figures of the day.
How the times have changed!
The elite university has bred a significant core of intolerant faculty members and students. Just ask Ronald Sullivan who, aside from being a law professor with a widely-respected knowledge of criminal law, occasionally ventures outside of the ivy walls and into the courts to represent individuals accused of heinous acts. In January, he joined the defense team representing former media-mogul Harvey Weinstein in his New York criminal trial on sexual assault charges. Among the various hats Sullivan wears, he mentors students at Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential dormitories. (Each Harvard undergraduate house has a faculty member take up residence to supervise the rest of the house staff and to offer guidance and advice to the students who live there. They are known as deans.)
A heated debate rages as to whether Sullivan should resign as a faculty dean. Some students have called for his resignation. Three prominent Harvard faculty members sharply criticized Sullivan for his decision to represent Weinstein while serving as a faculty dean, as well as his defense of prominent Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, Jr., accused of sexual harassment. The Harvard Crimson editorial board, while stopping short of calling for Sullivan’s resignation, criticized what it viewed as Sullivan’s mixed-up priorities: “Sullivan must increasingly make clear his priorities to the Winthrop and wider College communities, which greatly depend on him. Is he a faculty dean first, or a defense attorney?”
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana is one of the leaders of the faculty opposition to Sullivan’s multiple roles. Joining Khurana are Claudine Gay, professor and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and Professor Diana L. Eck. The crux of their and others’ criticism is that Sullivan’s role in mentoring students at an undergraduate residence hall is making some of the undergrads uncomfortable. (This delicacy displayed by some undergraduates has produced an increasingly common description of them as “snowflakes.”)
That liberal arts colleges and universities should cater to students’ sensibilities in an effort to make them “comfortable” is a not-uncommon view in some progressive academic circles, and among some students. In fact, the Sullivan debate calls to mind the controversy that erupted at Yale during the 2015-2016 academic year when Erika Christakis, who, like Sullivan, served as a mentor to undergrad students in a residential dormitory, drew the ire of some students who took issue with her critique of an email from Yale administrators imploring students to choose culturally-sensitive Halloween costumes. Christakis argued in an email to her residents that the administrative missive was inappropriate, and that students should decide for themselves what to wear on Halloween. Her politically-incorrect view opened her up to accusations that she was “invalidating the voices of minority students,” accompanied by calls for her resignation as a resident dean. Christakis ultimately decided not to return to her residential role the following academic year and was widely viewed as having been driven out.
At Harvard, there has been some pushback at the worrisome intolerance unbecoming of a liberal arts university. Perhaps the most public and articulate faculty supporter of Sullivan has been Professor Harry Lewis. Himself a former dean of Harvard College, Lewis points out on his popular “Bits and Pieces” blog that criminal lawyers work under an ethical code much like that of physicians, of whom there are many on the Harvard Medical School faculty. Physicians and nurses, like those who saved the life of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, must honor their professional obligation to tend to those in trouble. Reporting himself “startled” over faculty members who “have joined the chorus of Sullivan’s public critics,” Lewis concludes with praise for Sullivan: “Not many others at Harvard are speaking up for the rights of Weinstein and Fryer.”
What is the purpose of a liberal arts university? What values and habits should its leaders foster?
Like the roots of an aggressively invasive plant, the movement to create a more comfortable atmosphere for students threatens the vitality of academic freedom and the core of the university’s mission. The progressives at Harvard, if given the power to do so, would change the university’s motto from Veritas (truth) to something akin to “we know what’s true and what’s right, so get lost!” (Perhaps it would sound better in Latin than English.)
Harvey Silverglate, the Freedom Watch columnist, is a graduate of the Harvard Law School Class of 1967. Research assistant Nathan McGuire helped in the preparation of this piece.