Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Auditing" the membership practices of student organizations

The College’s Committee on Student Life is considering an audit of “comp” processes — membership training or vetting exercises for student organizations — to eliminate requirements which some committee members believe are “detrimental to campus culture,” according to several attendees of the Feb. 14 committee meeting. (Harvard Crimson)
Does no one hear how creepy this sounds?
In the Church of Scientologyauditing is a process wherein the auditor takes an individual, known as a "preclear", through times in their life and gets rid of any hold negative situations have on them. … Auditing is considered "a technical measure," that according to the Church, "lifts the burdened individual, the 'preclear,' from a level of spiritual distress to a level of insight and inner self-realization." The process is meant to bring the individual to clear status. (Wikipedia, "Auditing – Scientology")

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What about John Adams?

Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe has a hilarious column on the Winthrop House story. John Adams defended British soldiers who opened fire on American rebels. Should he have lost his Harvard library privileges?

It is never a good idea to read the comments on newspaper pieces, but I couldn't resist. Leaving the trolls aside, it's amazing how self-righteous and humorless some of them are. Weinstein, as one comment and many previous opinions have argued, is entitled to a lawyer. But anybody could have defended him, so Sullivan should have turned him down. But the whole point of the column was to force the question of whether Adams should have turned down the British soldiers. I have never heard it said that he was the only one who would take them on.

At the same time, a new task force has been announced, the Working Group on Symbols and Spaces at Harvard College, to be chaired by the estimable Professor Ali Asani. The interview is quite abstract, so it is hard to tell where this project is going. There is a nice reminder of the importance of the randomization of the Houses that occurred almost 25 years ago, pursuant to a recommendation of a faculty committee I co-chaired. In part the discourse seems to be about re-asserting the mission of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations; its future has been somewhat in doubt since the death of its remarkable founding director, Allen Counter. So that is all to the good too.

And I wonder how far this example goes:
 It is natural for these students who are discovering facets of their ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial identity as part of the College experience to want to explore those facets within affinity groups. 
Was gender intentionally omitted from that list, lest it suggest that women should not be punished for getting together with other women off-campus? On the other hand, the interview goes on to say,
We see people are retreating into their own communities, engaging only with people like themselves. We can see such tendencies on campus. For example, the central concern regarding final clubs were policies that led to certain students excluding other students from their social networks, determining who belonged and who did not.
This sounds to me like another revision of the history, or at least a very different emphasis on a matter for which the University has offered a variety of explanations. The trouble with this argument -- that the decision was about social exclusivity, as opposed to the idea that it was all about either sexual assault or gender exclusion -- is that no one ever showed any data documenting what the ethnic or social demography of the Final Clubs was today. At best, the University would from time to time fall back, without evidence, on the implication that they were all full of Hornblowers and Wigglesworths as they allegedly were in the nineteenth century, just hiding places for those damned Puritans we excised from Fair Harvard. I am pretty sure that is not what they look like today. And of course, the sororities were never socially exclusive, so if that is the revisionist argument, maybe the committee can rethink the decision.

In the worst case, the committee will spend its time on the discomfort students are said to experience because of the presence at Harvard of buildings with objectionable names, or speakers with objectionable views or histories. If that is where the committee chooses to go, Cullen has given it quite a list of cases to consider. Is it time to rename Stoughton Hall? After all, who would want to live in a building named in honor of the judge who cruelly sent the innocent Salem "witches" to their graves?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The illogical attack on Dean Sullivan

Should Ronald Sullivan limit his pastoral care of students to good people?

That is the question raised by the attacks to which he has been subjected on the basis that he has professional relationships with bad people, such as Harvey Weinstein and Roland Fryer. Sullivan explained himself pretty well on this, I think; the American system of the rule of law demands that even bad people be given the benefit of due process and competent legal defense. Rights, once taken away from unpopular figures, are more easily compromised for the rest of us. 

Yes, goes the retort, Weinstein and Fryer have a right to counsel. But that doesn’t mean that Sullivan has to defend them. They can instead hire someone who doesn’t have pastoral responsibility for students in Winthrop House.

But then shouldn’t Sullivan also be limiting his pastoral care of students to just the good people in the House? After all, Houses are full of people involved in peer disputes in which one of the parties must have done something wrong, and also people holding political and social views which most members of the House consider indefensible. Heavens, Winthrop House may even have a few sorority members in its population, and we KNOW that those people are, in President Faust’s words, out of step with Harvard’s “deepest values.”

Is it a faculty dean’s responsibility to pick and choose the good people among those in the House, and let someone else provide support to the others? Does the dean dishonor himself and undermine the House community by providing a sympathetic ear to a student who is accused of serious wrongdoing, or who simply holds views other students find offensive (say, those of the Republican party or the Roman Catholic church)? 

And if it is OK for a faculty dean to support unpopular people within the House, why should Sullivan’s outside professional connections have to be limited to people meeting a majoritarian morality test? 

Several faculty deans are physicians. If Weinstein had cancer, would we want these deans to treat him? There are plenty of doctors in the world, after all. Why should deans who provide pastoral care to Harvard students taint themselves by helping keep hated people alive?

Because that is the ethical requirement of their profession. The trauma doctors and nurses who treated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Marathon bomber, celebrated when they saw he had been captured, and then, exhausted though they were from days of caring for his victims, did everything in their power to keep him alive.

Of course, this entire train of logic is ill-founded. Professionals are not human extensions of the people they serve. They fill professional roles that may have nothing to do with their personal values. Their moral obligation is not to withhold their services from bad people; if anything, their professional responsibility is to provide those services. 

Sullivan explained this. But the logic of his detractors fails for a second reason.

What makes all these questions not just ill-founded but absurd is the presumption that it can be determined in advance who is good and who is bad, so the deans could withhold their succor from the bad. The point of housing a diversity of students under one roof is precisely to get them all past their Manichean systems of prejudicial classification. Students are housed together so that they will learn to withhold judgment, to listen empathetically, and to refrain from formulaic judgments. When President Lowell created the House system, having insisted that “each House should be as nearly as possible a cross-section of the College,” he explained why: 
The problem of the college is a moral one, deepening the desire to develop one’s own mind, body and character; and this is much promoted by living in surroundings and an atmosphere congenial to that object. … The Houses are a social device for a moral purpose.”

I am startled that deans Gay, Khurana, and Eck have joined the chorus of Sullivan’s public critics; I don’t recall anything like that happening before. This is starting to feel a lot like the sorry situation of the Christakises at Yale

Almost three years ago, I wrote to dean Khurana to express my concern that by attacking nonconformists (members of single gender clubs, in that case), he was “passing from creating community to molding a monoculture, in which people of whom we have every reason to be proud are afraid to do or say things that are lawful and generally considered harmless.”

Sullivan, too, is a nonconformist. Not many others at Harvard are speaking up for the rights of Weinstein and Fryer. Maybe there is more to Sullivan’s story than I know. But on the basis of the public statements of Harvard officials, I am even more worried today about their determination to create a monoculture here.