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Harvard’s Decision to Buckle to Illiberal Mob Spells Doom For Higher Education

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Editor's note: This column was authored by Christian Watson.

The rabid mobs of politically correct indignation have struck again, and a Harvard professor is their latest victim. On May 12, Harvard fired Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. and his wife from their positions as faculty dean of the Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate dorms. Professor Sullivan sparked student outrage when he agreed to represent the infamous Harvey Weinstein, and now, it seems administrators have caved.

This is a disgrace. Sullivan is the latest victim of a foolish attempt to avenge victims by destroying the very processes that protect us all. Everyone—the accused and the accuser alike—is entitled to legal representation. It’s deeply concerning that this fundamental truth escapes some at America’s most illustrious educational institutions and is increasingly uprooted by brash bullying, unchallenged accusations, and plain dishonesty. 

When Professor Sullivan first announced he was defending Harvey Weinstein in February, all hell broke loose. Fifty students demanded his resignation, a petition was circulated against him, and the Association of Black Harvard Women said he “failed them.” 

In the eyes of the campus mob, Sullivan was no longer an individual, but a rogue soldier in the war of wokeness. Not falling in lockstep is a grievous sin in the church of identity politics. 

Not only are Sullivan’s opponents attacking his individuality, they’re falsely labeling him dangerous too. An op-ed in the Harvard Crimson states that Sullivan’s presence is “a daily reminder” of Weinstein’s case, and therefore disrupts the safety of victims. The same piece claims, however, that merely hearing about sexual assault in the news is similarly dangerous. 

The entire argument is absurd. The outrage against Professor Sullivan merely reinforces the culture of “trigger warnings” and safe spaces, both of which shut down dialogue and ultimately undermine the very purpose of education. More importantly, the backlash ignores Sullivan's past deeds. He has reportedly counseled victims of sexual assault, helped free thousands from unjust incarceration, and represented a Harvard student in an excessive force case. So the man is no “danger” to anyone —  the only thing in danger in the halls of Harvard is sanity and valuable mentorship, both of which left with Ronald Sullivan.

Yet nonetheless, the suggestion that Weinstein and Sullivan are inseparable — no matter how ridiculous it is — underlies a fundamental tenet of the social justice movement: Narrative, not truth, is king. 

Sullivan’s previous actions don’t matter, his position as an attorney doesn’t matter, nor do any of his explanations. To the “woke” crowd, Sullivan is just as guilty as Weinstein merely by association. Thus, as the Crimson op-ed curtly insinuates, Sullivan’s ouster is necessary to protect “BGLTQ people, undocumented, DACAmented,” and numerous other victim classes.

While bullying Sullivan is bad enough, invoking arbitrary characteristics to destroy his career is morally repugnant. To suggest the man constitutes a threat to an identity is ridiculous; identities are parts of persons, not persons themselves. But more egregiously, the piece reduces residents of Winthrop to the sum of their parts, thus connecting them in the web of intersectional victimhood. 

This conveniently forgets that everyone is an individual.

And unfortunately, Harvard’s administration seemed to concur with these dishonest, narrative-driven actions. In a statement, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana stated that despite numerous efforts, “the actions taken to improve the climate” of the Winthrop house have been unsuccessful. Thus, Sullivan has got to go. 

But who created the climate of hostility? After all, it was students that protested with tape over their mouths and #MeToo scribbled on their wrists. Similarly, student activists vandalized the residential hall with the aim of ousting Sullivan. And most importantly, those same students claimed to be in danger. The irony is clear: If Dean Khurana wants to change the climate, his efforts best begin and end with his students. 

In all fairness, is this really a big deal? After all, Mr. Sullivan will retain his position as a professor at Harvard Law School, and is only losing his residential role. Normally, this wouldn’t seem all that consequential, but it’s about the principle of the matter. 

If Harvard wishes to preserve its place as a shining example of American pedagogy, its administrators must learn to not cater to primal noise and belligerence, but to reason. If they don’t, the importance of higher education itself is in danger.

Christian Watson is a writer at Young Voices. He can be found on twitter at @OfficialCWatson.

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