Sunday, May 12, 2019

The political execution of Dean Sullivan

Professor Ron Sullivan and his wife are out as faculty deans of Winthrop House, following the pattern of the Christakises at Yale. (I thought this might happen.) Sullivan, like Erika Christakis, was convicted of a political crime, and then publicly guillotined. The graceless announcement came yesterday in a letter that cynically invokes the notion of “dignity.” 

I know the counternarrative. The Crimson reported that there were problems with Sullivan long before l’affaire Weinstein. And so there may have been. But Harvard intentionally made Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein the tipping point of the decision to let him go. In the aftermath of Domínguez, the University decided that it couldn’t let the opportunity pass to make a very public #MeToo statement—even though it cut against the core principles of legal defense and the concept of separating professional activity from personal identity.

To explain, I need to refer back to a couple of old documents.

A recent "announcement" for Faculty Dean positions (included below) states, “Faculty Deans are appointed for a term of 5 years, beginning July 1st of the year following their appointment. These appointments are renewable for one additional 5-year term contingent upon a successful House review and approval from the Dean of Harvard College.” So the first question is why the decision to end Sullivan's tenure as faculty dean was not made simply on the basis that his ten years were up, given that the "position announcement" strongly suggests that these positions are limited to ten years. If the ten-year limitation is widely ignored, Harvard may have felt it needed a stronger rationale to remove him. So let’s assume that continuation beyond ten years is now routine. Still, it is clear from the announcement of Sullivan’s departure that he is not actually being removed; his term is up and he is not being reappointed. Under what conditions are faculty deans not reappointed?

Note in the “position announcement” the reference to “a successful House review.” That is to say, a normal review happens every five years, intended not just to review the performance of the faculty dean but to uncover other areas of concern and opportunities for improvement in the House. I don’t know what these “House reviews” consist of today; I include below a document showing what they looked like twenty years ago. A small committee talked to lots of people and reported back to the dean. The details don’t matter. The point is that there was—and according to the current “position announcement,” still is—a routine way to take the temperature of the House. Depending on the outcome of that review, the dean of the College would have the opportunity to sit down with the faculty deans and tell them, “Here is what the review turned up. I think you will agree that it makes more sense for you to announce your decision to move on to the next phase of your lives than for me to explain to the community what we have learned about your performance.” One of the reasons for term limits and reappointment reviews is to provide for the graceful and dignified handling of forced exits of people who will long remain in the community.

So why was there an out-of-the-ordinary, Orwellian “climate review” of Sullivan in Winthrop House? There should have been an ordinary quinquennial House review. That review would have uncovered whatever problems the climate review brought to light.

I can see only two possible answers. One is that those quinquennial reviews don’t actually happen, in spite of the "position announcement" stating that they do. In that case the dean of the College would simply reappoint whomever he wishes, independent of any pretense of informed evaluation. The very decision to conduct a “climate review” would then be political. Or else the normal review process took place and the “climate review” was added only in order to conduct a political trial of Sullivan’s decision to defend Weinstein.

It seems odd to characterize either possibility as "political," since Sullivan’s personal politics have not even come to light, and he seems to have defended a great many clients with whom the left would sympathize. By “political,” I mean the term in its latter-day, Domínguez-colored, #MeToo sense.

Consider an alternative political scenario, in which Sullivan defended a physician on trial for murder after performing an abortion. Committed students from Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi, and Kentucky, spurred to action by recent decisions of their state legislatures and governors, protest that they don’t want to be handed their diplomas by someone who defends infanticide. Or suppose that some other faculty dean had an abortion herself, and angry students spray-painted the word “MURDERER” on her door. 

Would Harvard conduct an extraordinary climate review under those circumstances and then announce that, coming on top of other performance problems, the climate created by the decision to defend an abortionist or to have an abortion was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

I doubt it. Instead we would have much rhetoric about learning to live in a diverse community with people who have different values, cultures, and ideals than our own. That no climate review would occur under those scenarios makes the decision to terminate Sullivan a statement of Harvard’s political preferences.

And since Sullivan was let go in part for political reasons, forgive my skepticism about the entire counter narrative – that is, whether the other alleged deficiencies in his leadership were major considerations in the decision not to keep him on. Certainly the students who were most vocal about Sullivan's defense of Weinstein are accepting the outcome as a victory for the #MeToo movement.

I hope Professor Sullivan does as well in his new life as Professor Nick Christakis has in his. And I hope Harvard can at some point think about what lessons such decisions are teaching its students (see Harvard's educational role and A teachable moment).

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate the points about free speech and of course professors should be able to take unpopular positions without having to worry about their jobs. But house dean seems like a position like head of department where your ability to be successful depends on the confidence that either the students or the faculty (for house dean or head of dept respectively) have in you. If you become a controversial figure and thereby lose the confidence of the students, then probably you are a less effective house dean. The same would hold in your example about abortion rights. If the house dean's interactions with students in the house becomes dominated by a dispute over abortion then they probably will be less effective at doing the rest of their job.