Harvard’s Feast of Grievance

The Ronald Sullivan affair is about everything—and nothing.

Ronald Sullivan
Richard Drew / AP

In 1926, after giving a lecture on literature, Gertrude Stein was asked, “What about the woman issue?” She replied, dryly enough to start a forest fire, “Not everything can be about everything.”

The ousting of Ronald Sullivan, the first black faculty dean to preside over a dorm at Harvard, is one of those scandals that aspires to be about everything, and in the process becomes about nothing at all. Last Friday, Sullivan lost or gave up two separate jobs: his deanship of Winthrop House, and his legal representation of the alleged rapist and potted-plant ejaculator Harvey Weinstein. Sullivan, one of the nation’s preeminent criminal-defense attorneys, had struggled to keep these jobs simultaneously while also pleasing a faction of Harvard students who detested Weinstein and held his lawyer to account for his client’s misbehavior.

I am reliably informed that the broader American public cares about as much about Harvard scandals as Harvard alumni care about scandals at Boise State. But let us count the ways this contretemps strummed chords on the country’s cultural conscience:

  • It involved Weinstein—the greatest villain of the most successful social-justice cause of this decade, which is the attempt to punish powerful men who prey on less-powerful women.
  • It offered a glimpse of elite-college students seemingly unable to deal with the mention of an alleged sexual predator, and unaware of, or uninterested in, the imperative to respect the rights of the accused. (No one accuses Sullivan of sexual impropriety. His student detractors say his legal defense is disqualifying all by itself.)
  • And—mark this—the next episode in this drama will be an expansion of claims that Harvard went after Sullivan because of his race. Sullivan suggested as much to his colleague Jeannie Suk Gersen in an interview published recently in The New Yorker. I have no idea how Sullivan will show that his race mattered here, but the scandal has a complexion. (Multiple complexions, in fact: Weinstein is white, Sullivan and the rest of the leadership of Winthrop House black; the dean who fired him is Indian American; Sullivan’s most prominent student detractor is British, of South Asian descent.)

This is a feast of grievance, with all courses served at once, and competing to be the main. Would any of these issues individually make the Sullivan affair the subject of national news? I doubt it. And now reports suggest the affair was even less than it seemed. Last week, just before Harvard chose to fire Sullivan from his deanship, The Harvard Crimson ran a long, innuendo-driven piece that suggested that at least some of the animus toward Sullivan was due to workplace conflicts of a less zeitgeist-y nature. Some of his subordinates thought he had it in for them; some probably had grudges of their own. Sullivan cycled through managerial staff at an alarming pace, and he allegedly asked them to do personal tasks for him, such as grocery trips. These kinds of workplace problems usually get one hated but not fired.

My view is that Harvard treated Sullivan shabbily, and I agree with the reasons articulated by Randall Kennedy, former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis, and my colleague Conor Friedersdorf. But I also see the Sullivan affair as illustrative of how these episodes, which are so fraught with cultural meaning, end up contributing next to nothing to the underlying issues that everyone desperately wants them to illuminate.

Even if you grant, as I do, that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to competent defense, there is ample reason to wonder whether Sullivan’s deanship fit easily with his defense of Weinstein in particular. Lawyers exempt themselves for conflicts much less than this one. Sullivan, as an officer of Harvard, would presumably have had to represent, defend, and execute the policies of a modern university—including policies that are inconsistent with due process for accused sex criminals. (Whether these policies are wise is another matter; until he recused himself, Sullivan had to follow them, and as a residential supervisor, was likely to be involved in their implementation.) Imagine if he were arguing a major case about land use, on the side of the city of Cambridge. Would he have to resign from the chairmanship of his homeowner’s association? Probably.

But of course the Sullivan affair had to be about Weinstein’s civil rights, or about fragile or obtuse college students. Or maybe race. Everyone has a pet issue—except that the issues are not pets, cuddly friends who curl up loyally at the foot of your bed. They are obsessions, less like pets than like drug addictions, which get in the way of clear thinking and even self-interest. The Sullivan affair turned out to be complicated, but not so complicated that everyone couldn’t get his hit of the issue that energized him most.

That is why I detect a relieved sigh in the background of the convenient whispers that Sullivan might have been a less-than-ideal boss. As Harry Lewis noted, if he had really been such a bad boss, Harvard could have discovered his incompetence, and even allowed him to step down, without anyone having to know that his competence was the reason. But what immaculate grace for the university, to have reasons emerge for his termination that feed the addictions of no one in particular, and enable Harvard to say it caved neither to student activists, nor to the pervert-defender they abhor! (Sullivan, for his part, adduced a similarly bland reason for withdrawing from Weinstein’s defense: not that it was a conflict of interest, but that it was a conflict of schedules. He had classes to teach.)

The addicts make themselves vulnerable to this sort of maneuver: If you apply your issue to just any situation, you have to prepare for the situation to change, or be changed cynically, in a way that thwarts its enlistment in your cause. Similarly, as Wesley Yang pointed out, Sullivan made himself vulnerable to the addicts. If you’re a boss whose leadership brings about factionalization, the faction that hates you will enlist activists to bring you down as soon as you show weakness. Ditto about the cynicism.

The longest-serving faculty dean of a Harvard house was John H. Finley Jr., a tweedy classicist who served as master, as they were then called, of Eliot House from 1941 to 1968, during its single-sex heyday as an incubator of preppies. It is possible to feel nostalgia for aspects of university life without wishing for the restoration of the era in its morally deficient entirety. (Sullivan’s students may seem brittle, but one of Finley’s was the Unabomber, class of 1962.) Finley wrote letters of recommendation for every student under his watch—an onus no faculty dean today would be willing to undertake, and that in any case he could bear only because of the Olympian status professors then enjoyed. I doubt a faculty dean whose relationship with students was potentially adversarial would be able to do the same. Finley’s New York Times obituary quotes him as saying the purpose of Harvard was to “reduce the time [students] spent thinking about women from 80 percent to 60 percent,” and to fill the extra minutes with a little more of the Iliad, or of organic chemistry. In other words: to retreat from the distractions and complexities of social life, and to embrace the complexities of intellectual life. Quaint as this sounds to our modern ears, I wonder whether the era of the Sullivan affair, where social life is burdened with maximum complication and intellectual life is simplified for activist purposes, is any better.