Harvard has asked Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. of the Harvard Law School and first African-American dean at the college, to step down from his position. The esteemed professor had announced his intention to defend Harvey Weinstein in January, which led to months of student protests before Harvard finally made the call to ask him to step down. Weinstein is well-known for not just producing exquisite works of cinema, but also for molesting, sexually harassing, groping and raping over 80 women. The numbers probably exceed a 100, as not all women come forward.
Twitter was immediately up in arms about this decision, with hundreds of people supporting the lawyer for doing his just duty to defend an unpleasant character. Well-known journalist Glenn Greenwald immediately put out a Tweet in his defense, calling out the “racism”. The fact that over 80 women had faced sexual, mental and psychological trauma for years, with serious consequences to their careers, financial security and emotional well-being seems trivial, compared to the injury faced by Professor Sullivan Jr. in doing his legal duty.
While the right for all violators to a fair defense is enshrined in the law, I wonder if the African-American students who stepped out in such vociferous outrage against the dean’s ouster would have done the same for a white Harvard law professor who took the same decision to defend a police officer who’d killed over 80 unarmed black teenagers. Would they be as enthusiastic if the law professor in question decided to defend the man who bombed the black churches? What about defending the leaders of the Rwanda genocide—surely they too are entitled to a legal defense? But would a white professor who did that still expect to hold on to his teaching position? I doubt.
The reason why a white professor would choose not to defend such a character is simple—while it is written in the law that everyone is entitled to a defense, simple human decency and awareness of the atrocities faced by African-Americans at the hands of the police would make this decision to stay away from such a character a no-brainer.
Note there is no “ism” for women who draw the same outrage—a mass rapist is entitled to his legal defense, but the 80 women who came forth and the many who didn’t don’t deserve the same defense. “Sexism” doesn’t even begin to touch the level of misogyny in the way this debate is unfolding. I see not a single Tweet in defense of the women who were Weinstein’s victims.
If only this debate was just about an African-American man’s right to do his unpleasant duty. This is not just the 100 odd women whom Weinstein probably raped in his lifetime, but the thousands of women who have faced sexual violence in conflict and war, the millions who have suffered workplace sexual violence and rape, and the ever increasing cases of male impunity which creates conditions ripe for rape of girls, aged a few months to teenagers, at the hands of men of all ages in developing countries.
If Harvard thinks this debate is only about racism, it is wrong. (Sullivan Jr. is still in the faculty.) This is about the lives of millions of women who have been affected and harmed by sexual violence worldwide. Sexual violence offenders permeate every institution at every level worldwide, pushing women out from public life, affecting their emotional and financial security, and making them even more vulnerable to violence.
What goes on at Harvard filters down everywhere and becomes legal norms in every other country, including Third World countries with poor legal regimes like Nepal. As an academic institution which often comes in the top rankings of the entire world, Harvard cannot afford to think this is about the abstract rule of law.
To allow someone to flaunt his male privilege in this manner would be akin to allowing someone who defended Nazis to be on the law faculty. The mass atrocity committed by the notorious Weinstein ticks all the boxes of a crime against humanity. I was myself surprised to learn this, but you don’t need millions of people affected by a crime for it to be a crime against humanity—about 80 will do if the crime is egregious enough. And you cannot have a man who defends crimes against humanity teaching students at Harvard.
For the many girls and women of Nepal who’ve faced violence in school at the hands of teachers, such as the women who were molested as children by Uttam Tripathi at Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidhyalaya, these scars never heal. For the women in Nepal who were raped and killed during the conflict by soldiers, justice will now only come in the form of how we reshape institutions so they are free of predators, including opportunistic ones who will use their social and institutional standing to defend other predators.
Let’s have a true debate about who the victims are in this discourse. It is not law professor Sullivan Jr. If the concern is about African-American faculty and their marginalization at Harvard, the solution is simple: hire the many brilliant black women lawyers who have fought hard and long all through their lives against sexual violence. There are many of them, all equally powerful and all equally capable of becoming deans of the college.
Any man this tone deaf to the worldwide #MeToo movement doesn’t deserve to be teaching at one of the finest colleges in the world. For Harvard to allow this man to remain on the faculty would be a travesty of justice.