Friday, March 1, 2019

A teachable moment

Professor Randall Kennedy has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the demands that Professor Ronald Sullivan step down as faculty dean of Winthrop House. “Harvard students are outraged over Ronald Sullivan’s legal work,” reads the subtitle. “They should learn from it instead.” Kennedy here puts his finger on a particularly troubling aspect of the way this situation is unfolding. 

Harvard’s first job is to educate its students. Having them in residence provides an extraordinary opportunity to teach them about the complexities of life, the ways in which human beings are multidimensional and communities of different human beings with different histories, ambitions, and ideals can cooperate and foster progress. Residential life can thereby teach a key element of democratic citizenship, so threatened today: how to engage in a spirit of civic optimism with people whose decisions and actions you find disagreeable.

So far that sounds like a standard justification for diversity, with which no one could disagree. But the next step is where the rubber meets the road. A society in which each member plays multiple roles, and in which those constellations of personae differ from individual to individual, can hold together peacefully and productively only through the exercise of reason applied to deep but sometimes competing commitments to individual freedom and to the common good. Such a commitment requires both sublimation of one’s own emotions and empathy toward others. It is inconsistent with a view that discord is intolerable and personal comfort is supreme. As Kennedy says, 
Those calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal as a faculty dean … are displaying an array of disturbingly widespread tendencies. One is impatience with drawing essential distinctions such as that between a lawyer and his client. Another is a willingness to minimize or dispense with important safeguards like fair trials. Yet another is a tendency to resort to demonization.

The public response of Harvard officials thus far has been to draw a sharp divide between Sullivan’s educational and pastoral roles, seemingly restricting “education” to book-learning. According to the Crimson,
“When we think about the faculty dean role, part of it is the faculty dean as an educator, someone that’s helping to connect students to, frankly, the excitement of intellectual and academic life,” [FAS Dean Claudine] Gay said. “But there’s also a pastoral role, sort of an expectation of a special responsibility to the well-being of the students who are part of the community.”
On that score, Dean Gay found Sullivan’s handling of the controversy “insufficient.” Dean Khurana echoed those sentiments, while coldly defending Sullivan’s “academic freedom.” I am not at all sure that is the right category; does Dean Khurana mean to suggest that rights to academic freedom end at the gates of the Harvard Houses, lest someone do or say something that offends other residents?

Dean Khurana then charged former Freshman Dean Tom Dingman to conduct a “Climate Review” of Winthrop House. Having more or less publicly thrown Sullivan under the bus, that is, Khurana has asked Dingman to find out how students are feeling and apparently plans to hold Sullivan to a spookily vague climatological standard. (Dingman is a loyal servant of Harvard and an old friend, but he is also the dean who, invoking the same troubling dichotomy between intellect and feelings, asked students for a public pledge of their commitment to the principle that “kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.”)

I suspect that it is very hard for Sullivan to speak up for himself in the way that Kennedy has supported him and indeed has supported Harvard’s full educational role. Sullivan is in a more ethically constrained situation than the nurse I mentioned in an earlier post. A medical professional can say what she wants about the patient she is treating as long as she treats him and respects his medical privacy. But Sullivan, having agreed to defend Weinstein, can speak about him only in the voice of his lawyer.

Yet there is no reason why Harvard—Khurana, or Gay, or President Bacow, or a student group, or some department, or the Safra Center, or some other Harvard entity—could not stage a thoughtful educational forum to explore this nuanced situation. I am thinking of the sort of thing the Harvard Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society sponsored about single-gender organizations, though it would not have to be framed as a debate. In the absence of any effort to raise the discussion to a more rational level, an important teachable moment will be lost. “We can only hope,” as Kennedy concludes, “that Harvard authorities will decline to defer to expressions of noisy discomfort and instead adhere to those intellectual and moral tenets that sometimes must bear the uncomfortable burden of complexity.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for pointing your readers to Professor Kennedy's compelling article and Harvard's troubling statements about Professor Sullivan.