Several recent events at Harvard point toward a troubling trend of blatant administrative overreach into areas that have long been under faculty control.

Faculty tenure is meant to ensure unfettered intellectual inquiry, with the understanding that knowledge is best pursued in an open and contentious marketplace. But having tenure at Harvard ain’t what it used to be – a lifelong perch from which it has long been thought virtually impossible to oust or otherwise punish or penalize a professor except for conduct approaching the commission of a felony (tenure does not protect against proven misconduct). If administrators at Harvard now want to move against a tenured professor, what they do is commission a “climate review” or other such Orwellian-sounding investigation that almost invariably finds that the faculty member has created an atmosphere that makes either his students or his colleagues somehow “uncomfortable.”

This is how Harvard recently ousted Law Professor Ronald Sullivan from his decade-long stint as Faculty Dean and residential advisor to undergraduates living in Winthrop House. The reason? Sullivan, it seems, made the student snowflakes uncomfortable because, in his private law practice, he undertook to represent the loathsome Harvey Weinstein, accused in a high-profile New York prosecution of sexually assaulting several women. Caving to student pressure, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana concocted an unprecedented “climate review” of Winthrop House in a thinly veiled attempt to legitimize his subsequent dismissal of Sullivan. (Sullivan retains his tenured position on the law faculty.)

Professor Roland Fryer, a tenured member of the Harvard College faculty (and, coincidentally, a client of Prof. Sullivan), has fallen prey to an even more Draconian device for dealing with professors suddenly out of favor with students or administrators. Fryer was recently placed on administrative leave followed by two years of supervised probationary return to academic duties, as a result of investigations into his “unwelcome sexual conduct toward several individuals, resulting in the creation of a hostile work environment over the course of several years” within the research lab that he created and headed. This sanction, announced by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, followed an investigation of women’s complaints undertaken by Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution, a kind of kangaroo court that apparently has the power to punish even tenured faculty members in this manner.

Put more simply, the administration has figured out how to circumvent the job protections and professorial independence that tenure was, at one time, thought to confer.

Every revolution, coup, or other such takeover of power in any institution (or nation, for that matter) seems to have a slogan. Most recently, we have encountered from our current Commander-in-Chief the successful chant from his first run for public office, “Make America great again.” During an earlier presidential administration, there was the Clintons’ 1996 “Building a bridge to the 21st century,” preceded by George H. W. Bush’s call for a “Kinder, gentler nation” (1988), and, later, Barack Obama’s “Change we can believe in” (2008).

Nations are not the only entities and institutions, however, whose leaders seek to simplify complex problems by resorting to slogans. Universities of late have sought to justify all manner and kind of policies and practices by invoking phrases that are a cover for hubris and power plays of various sorts. At Harvard we have recently encountered such concepts as “safe spaces” used by students to justify places on campus where they can be free from the tensions and challenges, intellectual and emotional, created by disturbing viewpoints.
And so it is not surprising that, in the wake of the gradual but certain takeover of power by the burgeoning Harvard administration from the Harvard faculty (that for centuries made most of the decisions), a new sobriquet has been coined: “climate review.” Even in the absence of an allegation of misconduct directed at Prof. Sullivan, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana managed to oust Sullivan from his Faculty Dean position at Winthrop House because another bureaucrat, appointed by Khurana to review the House’s climate, found that the house leadership by Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer made the students vaguely uncomfortable.

The power of the Harvard bureaucrats has manifested itself in yet other ways.

Earlier this year, former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was named a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Upon his appointment, Snyder announced the obligatory “excitement” with which he accepted the honor. But in July, a backlash developed against the appointment because of Snyder’s supposed participation in a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, resulting from tainted water that affected, largely, poorer segments of Flint’s population. Snyder withdrew from the fellowship, although it was widely assumed that he was pushed out by administrators.

And the trend has reared its ugly head in the admissions arena as well. Kyle Kashuv, an outstanding student by any measure, and described by those who have examined his record as being thoughtful, intelligent, and ambitious, was offered a coveted spot in Harvard College’s Class of 2023. But his acceptance was unceremoniously revoked when the admissions committee learned that, when Kashuv was a mere boy of 16, he engaged in racially offensive banter (for which he later apologized profusely). Some faculty members protested the revocation of Kashuv’s admission, but it was to no avail. Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, a long-time administrator, was a power unto himself, with no need to seek formal faculty approval before annulling an offer of admission because of mere speech, not to mention speech uttered at the age of 16.

A pattern underlies these recent incidents. Administrators have asserted their superior power in an institution previously run by its faculty. The professoriate faces a huge battle if it is to wrest its power back from the bureaucrats. It is highly dubious that the faculty even has the will, much less the necessary institutional support from the governing board at the very top of the pyramid, to make the attempt. It is uncertain whether Harvard, or for that matter any other university experiencing a similar shift from faculty to bureaucratic power, will long retain its ability to offer a first-rate education.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and writer, is WGBH’s long-time “Freedom Watch” columnist. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, Silverglate taught there for one semester. Monika Greco, Silverglate’s research assistant, contributed to this piece.