Harvard and Sex Offenders

Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan. TEDx Talks, January 2017.

For better or worse, usually the latter, there is a rule of thumb in US higher education: what happens at Harvard gets noticed.

So, when Ronald Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, were terminated as faculty deans at Winthrop House, the New York Times ran coverage.  The precipitating cause lay in several months of campus campaigning against Sullivan, beginning in January, for joining the legal defence team for Harvey Weinstein.

The arguments advanced against Sullivan were variants on a claim of incompatibility between his duties as a faculty mentor and administrator, and his legal work defending Weinstein on sexual assault charges.  In the past semester, the claims against Sullivan and Robinson expanded to include allegations of poor and absentee administration, despite their decade of deanship without public complaints against them.    

The important part of this story lies in the campaign against Sullivan for his attorney-client association with Weinstein and the sexual assault charges.  No one outside the Harvard community cares about amorphous charges over residential house administration, charges that smack of argument-switching.  There may or may not be truth to these claims but the objections to Sullivan’s legal work entirely out-shadowed them.    

Two dichotomised positions emerged over the past months.  One emphasised the need for support for sexual assault survivors.  The Association of Black Harvard Women wrote to demand Sullivan’s resignation: “You have compromised the trust placed in you to serve and listen to survivors needing your sympathy and support as they deal with their trauma.” This position posited an incompatibility between educational and legal roles and an empathetic failure on Sullivan’s part by agreeing to represent Weinstein, a symbol of sexual abuse by powerful men. 

The second position focused on Sullivan’s role in meeting community needs for legal representation for both survivors and those accused of sexual assault.  A letter from 52 Harvard law professors called upon the university administration “to recognise that such legal advocacy in service of constitutional principles is not only fully consistent with Sullivan’s roles of law professor and dean of an undergraduate house, but also one of the many possible models that resident deans can provide in teaching, mentoring, and advising students.”

After weeks of self-defence, Sullivan resigned as Weinstein’s attorney due to a schedule incompatibility between teaching and the court calendar.  Sullivan believed he was resolving the conflict.  He was wrong.  The following day the university administration informed Harvard and the world that it was terminating Sullivan and Robinson as deans.

Putting the matter simply, a campus campaign pilloried a faculty member as a substitute for a much-loathed public figure and forced a humiliating demotion.  Since Weinstein was not available for shaming, then his local representative served the same purpose.    

Sexual assault involves abominable acts that call for a difficult balance between punishment and treatment.  Sex offenders, in the words of the 6th US Court of Appeals in Does v. Snyder (2016) when it struck down Michigan’s punitive registration and restriction law against those with sexual assault convictions, have become “moral lepers” governed by harsh laws that “[consign] them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins.” 

What Harvard’s decision did, in an act of cowardice by Dean Rakesh Khurana, was to expand the orbit of condemnation to its faculty who advocate positive engagement with sex offenders.  It transformed a charge of traumatic reaction into a weapon against faculty association with ‘the wrong sort.’ Khurana may have considered the welfare of his own institution, as is his charge, however, the decision’s implications will not remain local.

To restate, academics notice what happens at Harvard.  No university president, provost, dean, school director, or department chair wants to deal with similar media publicity.  So the administrative lesson learned nationwide becomes to avoid similar connections and objections.  When educational institutions and faculty avoid sex offenders that will only reinforce and perpetuate their social leper status.        

There is an ominous message for faculty whose work intersects with sex offenders or others whom public opinion deems odious.  It reads as a dire warning of backlash.  For the last three years, I have taught a poetry workshop in the sex offenders unit of an Arizona state prison.  The students have been convicted of a range of sex offences – rape, sexual assault against children, child pornography, and more.  The state prison system has stripped its ‘SO units’ of any education services beyond the legally-required minimum of mandatory literacy and GED-level education.  Volunteer teachers from our university provide the only available on-site post-secondary education available. 

We rely on faculty and graduate student willingness to travel long distances to teach non-credit courses without remuneration.  That willingness can be hard to find.  A couple of months ago, I took a new colleague out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  She was thrilled initially at the idea of visiting a prison class and then I mentioned that I teach in a SO unit.  A quickly suppressed look flashed over her face.  She has not joined us for a class nor do I anticipate that she will.  Teachers bring their own life experiences, this work may be too difficult or impossible for some, and we should understand.

Willingness to engage with sex offenders and prisons is crucial to sustain programming.  Tenured faculty have few professional concerns about this engagement.  We are protected if a right-wing state legislator or two screams nasty insults or lodges official complaints.  In most contemporary universities, though, the greatest number of teachers have contingent employment and remain untenured.  They are vulnerable and the public whipping Ronald Sullivan endured for an association with Weinstein can only heighten the insecurity of untenured teachers working with sex offenders.     

There is no contradiction between our work as university teachers, our capacity to empathise intensely with and support sexual assault survivors, and a commitment to realise a universal human right to education.  Harvard’s treatment of Ronald Sullivan attempts to frame a supposed contradiction between serving free-world students and working with those facing criminal sex offence charges or incarcerated sex offenders.  This is a false model: we must resist and reject treating fellow humans as untouchable.    

Screenshot courtesy of TEDx. All rights reserved.