Universities have been called to clarify the expectations and limitations of academic administrators in the wake of Harvard University’s decision to oust a dean who was on Harvey Weinstein’s legal defence team.
Harvard has faced intense backlash after announcing earlier this month that Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson would not be continuing as faculty deans of Winthrop House when their terms ended on 30 June.
Professor Sullivan, Jesse Climenko clinical professor of law and director of the university’s Criminal Justice Institute, had been the target of student protests since he announced in January that he would be on former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s defence team.
Students claimed that Professor Sullivan’s decision to represent someone accused of sexual abuse disqualified him from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Professor Sullivan left Weinstein’s team the day before Harvard’s decision, according to ABC News.
However, reports in The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, claim that there have been longstanding concerns about leadership at Winthrop House, one of 12 undergraduate residential houses at the institution.
Jeffrey Sachs, lecturer in the department of politics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said that Harvard and other institutions needed to “think more carefully about what academic freedom entails”.
“Many faculty occupy administrative posts that straddle the academic-student relations line. Many more are being encouraged by their institutions to engage with the public online, in talks and in print,” he said.
“These new levels of exposure create real vulnerabilities for faculty and the potential for blowback. Universities need to be explicit with faculty about precisely how much security they have, should they say or do something that proves controversial.”
Jeffrey Flier, distinguished service professor and Higginson professor of physiology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that, if Harvard wants faculty deans to “include prominent academics from diverse fields of study, as opposed to counsellors and therapists, some or all of these faculty deans will from time to time express opinions and have roles that some students will disagree with or find politically or morally objectionable”.
“The administration must clarify this: when such unavoidable situations occur, and some students claim emotional harm as a result, will they view this as cause to question or terminate the dean’s tenure,” Professor Flier said.
“I would see such a view as deeply flawed. It diminishes the intellectual discourse that should characterise a great university community, diminishes the capacity of faculty deans to be role models for accomplishment and intellectual bravery, and projects students as children needing protection from dangerous ideas rather than young adults who must learn to grapple effectively with complex ideas and values that are not uniform within the Harvard community, and will not be uniform in their post-Harvard lives.”
A Harvard spokeswoman said that the decision not to renew the faculty deans was “informed by a number of considerations”, including “serious and numerous” concerns from students about “the climate in Winthrop House”.
“The actions that have been taken to improve the climate and the noticeable absence of faculty dean leadership during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. The college deemed this situation in the house to be untenable,” the spokeswoman said.
She added that “the role and term of faculty deans are explicitly clear to those who are appointed to the position”.
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