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.

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