As America’s oldest and wealthiest university, Harvard University has been a source of national pride, indeed a national treasure, always very high on the list of the world’s top schools. Yet recently it committed a blunder of breathtaking proportions, one so egregious that it calls for action not only by Harvard but possibly even beyond.
The Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, fired Ronald Sullivan, longtime faculty dean of Winthrop House. Sullivan was recruited to Harvard Law School by now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, and is Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute. Sullivan is well known for his work in defending literally thousands of individuals accused of major crimes, such as NFL football star Aaron Hernandez. What heinous act led Sullivan (and, by extension, his wife, another Harvard Law instructor, Stephanie Robinson) to be fired from their Winthrop House position? He agreed (although later changed his mind) to represent accused rapist and sexual harasser, Harvey Weinstein in forthcoming criminal proceedings.
Students started protesting, even proclaiming that this act was “deeply trauma-inducing” and threatening. Admittedly, based on numerous news accounts, Weinstein appears to be one of the world’s most morally flawed individuals. But a basic core value of American liberal democracy is the rule of law, with all accused, even the most heinous, entitled to representation by competent legal counsel. It’s as if Dean Khurana said the opinions of unhappy Harvard students count for more than hundreds of years of legal precedent.
Fortunately, many famous liberal icons on the Harvard Law faculty are appalled. Writing in the New York Times, Randall Kennedy said Harvard “has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did.” Laurence Tribe said, according to Peter Berkowitz’s account in Real Clear Politics, “Of many blunders, Harvard has made in my 50 years …here, I recall none worse.” Alan Dershowitz weighed in: “feeling ‘unsafe’ is the new mantra for the new McCarthyism….. It is a totally phony argument.” Some 52 members of the Harvard Law faculty, in a letter to the Boston Globe, strongly condemned the action as well.