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.)