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Studies Abroad: How College Campus Politics Inform the Real World—and Fail to See It

A Harvard dean recently removed two faculty deans in light of vigorous on-campus protests related to Harvey Weinstein’s ongoing case. What does the controversy tell us about America’s collegiate activism?

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On Sunday, Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana capitulated to protests against two professors, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, the faculty deans overseeing Winthrop House, one of 12 student residence halls on campus. “I am writing to let you know that Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson will not be continuing as your Faculty Deans when their term ends on June 30, 2019,” Khurana announced.

The protesters objected to Sullivan’s representing Harvey Weinstein as a defense attorney, and characterized Sullivan’s work for Weinstein in a petition as “not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing.”

Danu Mudannayake, an undergraduate student and a Harvard Crimson staffer, has led the charge against Sullivan. She authored the petition and co-authored a Crimson op-ed demanding Sullivan’s removal, citing Sullivan’s legal defense of Weinstein as well as his criticisms of the #MeToo movement and Harvard’s Title IX procedures. “As a defense attorney, Dean Sullivan of Winthrop House can defend whomever he wishes,” Mudannayake writes in a recent Medium post. “My concern, which I share with many other students, is that his representation of Weinstein and Fryer is inconsistent with his role in creating a healthy ecology as Faculty Dean of Winthrop House. His activities thus far have acted to intimidate and silence students, tutors, and even Faculty Deans who have sought to voice their concerns about his role, including by branding them as racists.” (Sullivan and Robinson are the first black faculty deans in the college’s history.)

In his letter to Winthrop House, Khurana doesn’t mention Weinstein. He addresses the protests against Sullivan and Robinson cryptically. “Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House,” Khurana writes. “The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the House. I have concluded that the situation in the House is untenable.” On Friday, the Harvard Crimson published an extensive report about the tensions in Winthrop House and controversy surrounding Sullivan and Robinson dating back three years and relating to the couple’s conflicts with junior faculty members and students. Based on several interviews, The Harvard Crimson describes a “culture of fear” among staffers and students, current and former, under Sullivan and Robinson.

In a March interview with The New Yorker, Sullivan disputed the scale of the campus protests against him. “I’m not sure if it’s a lot of people, and I think that’s important to note,” Sullivan says. “You have the numbers at your disposal of protesters versus the seven-thousand-student undergraduate population. I’ll leave that to you.”

The backlash against Sullivan is bigger than Winthrop House and Harvard College. The campus activism that led Sullivan to distance himself from Weinstein, and then led Khurana to distance Sullivan from Winthrop House, have provoked larger skepticism about the left’s support for democratic principles, including free speech, free association, and due process. The young activists students whom we’ll call the “campus left” pickets and “deplatforms” outrageous speakers. The campus left protests professors who offend progressive sensibilities about feminism, gender identity, and race relations. The campus left is messy and occasionally even illiberal. So, too, are the left-wing activists who adopt modern campus-style politics in the political mainstream. These activists are but one faction. They are overzealous in Twitter and on campuses, if only because they are so poorly served in formal politics. If Sullivan is a pariah among some Harvard students, he remains a credible and prominent figure in wider life. In fact, Sullivan remains a Harvard professor despite the many fresh headlines about Harvard having “fired” him.

The campus activists are young people engaging in youthful politics.The campus activism does occasionally disrupt advanced careers and powerful figures, such as the prominent and oftentimes controversial faculty at Harvard College. Sullivan and Robinson are only the latest Harvard faculty to battle campus activists for continued employment. Thirteen years ago, Larry Summers resigned as the Harvard University president after activists, on campus and at large, seized upon his remarks (at a private conference) about differing “aptitude” between men and women in science and engineering studies. In the fall 2017 semester, Harvard students and alumni petitioned against Sean Spicer’s brief fellowship at the Kennedy School. A year later, Spicer drew protests at UMass Amherst from students who objected to Spicer’s serving Donald Trump—and amplifying the president’s dismal rhetoric—as the White House press secretary. “Harvard’s motto is Veritas,” one 2012 alumna said regarding a popular petition against Spicer’s fellowship. “You cannot hold that up and invite Sean Spicer, an incompetent liar.”

Spicer’s representation of Trump is the crux of his political significance. Harvard would not have hired him if not for the particular experience. Why shouldn’t some political activists oppose some political hack in vigorous terms? But Sullivan and Robinson are professors who, their defenders insist, had campus leftist politics thrown upon them like a heap of tomatoes. This is the conservative’s fever dream about identity politics, cancel culture, and deplatforming; the recent events at Harvard are evidence of the censorious mob politics that modern liberals export to all corners of American life: The fever dream conflates campus politics and Twitter discourse with governance. Donald Trump is the president. Mudannayake, a college student, is wrong about Sullivan. Khurana, a college dean, is right to address student demands. The Harvard Crimson story about Winthrop House suggests a campus controversy more complex than meets the eye. In any case, Harvey Weinstein is entitled to a defense attorney, and left-wing activists generally concerned with criminal justice should comprehend the role and importance of defense attorneys, who should be able to defend clients against the state without alienating civil rights activists (of all people). Mudannayake is 21 years old. She will learn. In any case, she will graduate, and then she will join the mature political discourse, which identifies the real villains in our modern politics: English majors and Twitter.