University leaders must be free to air views that challenge their communities

The controversy over a Harvard dean’s defence of Harvey Weinstein is no reason to disregard the core academic mission, says Sandro Galea 

June 6, 2019
thorny speech bubble illustration
Source: James Fryer

Harvard University’s recent announcement that law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr would no longer remain faculty dean of one of its undergraduate houses raises profound questions for all university senior leaders.

The reasons for Harvard’s decision are complex, involving long-standing complaints about Sullivan’s administration of the house. But the recent focus on his leadership was precipitated by an outcry over his time on the legal defence team of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Some members of the Harvard community felt that Sullivan’s willingness to defend Weinstein, who has been accused of multiple sexual crimes, compromised his ability to provide a safe, supportive environment for students. Sullivan’s advocates, on the other hand, have said that although Sullivan no longer represents Weinstein, his willingness to do so is testament to the fact that even people accused of heinous offences still have the right to the best legal defence they can access. Some have even cited John Adams, a Harvard alum, who, in 1770, defended the British soldiers accused of carrying out the Boston Massacre, despite his personal sympathies for American independence.

The Sullivan controversy highlights the challenge leaders of schools and universities face as they navigate the conversation around difficult issues. As the dean of a school of public health, I have long pondered when and how academic leaders should take public positions on issues they feel are important. To my thinking, they must do so. But Sullivan’s case raises the fraught question of what happens when that position runs counter to the views held by many in the institution (since choosing to represent Weinstein has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, to amount to taking a position).

The case for avoiding such scenarios is compelling. Controversial stands can lead to outcry, with members of the school or university community wondering if the leader shares their values. It may indeed be reasonable for them to question whether a leader should be public about values that conflict with community norms. All communities are united by their values and the culture that emerges from them, and it is the job of academic leaders to create an environment where all individuals are comfortable and empowered to voice their perspectives. It is not a stretch to think that if a leader takes positions that are at odds with community norms, the members – faculty, staff, students, alums – may wonder if their differing positions will be accorded the appropriate place in the conversation.

On the other hand, universities have endured through countless epochs because of their commitment to free enquiry and open debate – even if that leads, at times, to uncomfortable places. Guided by these values, universities give students the tools to learn and grow throughout life. In some ways, it is an abdication of this value if leaders do not take positions that they feel strongly about – backed by reason and, where appropriate, evidence – simply because it is at odds with what they think the community wishes. If leaders cannot take positions themselves, what confidence will members of the community have that they can do so? If leaders do not engage in the imperative to freely think, does that not deny to academic communities the very core of the aspiration to engage with the world in all its complexity; to parse different ideas and perspectives; to think for oneself?

This would suggest that universities should create a space for all their members, including their leaders, to think and speak freely, and engage the public conversation in a manner consonant with their scholarship and ideas. But can they? The Sullivan controversy shows what can happen when a school community’s norms seem to conflict with the academic values that drew it together in the first place. The rights of the accused are indeed core to the principles a law school exists to impart. At the same time, the feelings evoked by Sullivan’s defence of Weinstein, particularly among students, were real – and, in these politically fraught times, increasingly familiar.

The question is whether academic institutions remain capacious enough to include the full range of human experience, including our areas of deeply felt divergence. It seems to me self-evident that they must include everything – the hard as well as the easy, the offensive as well as the enlightened, protest as well as pedagogy. Allowing for this means allowing for times when academic leaders take positions that may be out of sync with their communities. When these moments occur, it is a chance for schools and universities to listen, with compassion, to the concerns while remaining committed to the core academic values that allow that community to exist.

This is not easy, as the Harvard case has shown. But neither are the values that academic institutions are designed to uphold. Schools and universities are unique among our institutions in that we have designed them specifically to host these encounters. If such meetings cannot happen here, where can they happen?

Sandro Galea is professor and dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. His latest book is Well: What we need to talk about when we talk about health.


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Reader's comments (1)

Why is THE not covering the case of Canadian public intellectual Professor Ricardo Duchesne, target of academic mobbing at UNB in June 2019? Don't they know about it? Are they preparing something? Does it fall short of their criteria of an interesting story? If so, why? The Duchesne case is much more interesting that the above story. No-one defends the accused and most people think he has a right to legal representation, so there is hardly a controversy.

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