United States Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow last week requesting that he explain the College’s decision not to renew former Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.
Grassley asked Bacow to provide responses to a series of questions about how administrators decided to remove Sullivan, and about the state of academic freedom at the University more broadly. Grassley asked Harvard to send its reply to the Senate Finance Committee before Oct. 25.
“To be clear, it is generally Harvard College’s business as to what faculty members it employs and how it employs them,” Grassley wrote. “But this episode raises significant concerns that have implications for the state of tax-exempt higher education in the United States and how it is preparing the next generation of our Nation’s leaders.”
The College’s decision not to renew Sullivan followed a months-long controversy over his decision to represent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who currently faces criminal charges including rape and sexual assault.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that the University has received Grassley’s letter. She reiterated previous statements noting that the decision not to renew Sullivan and co-Faculty Dean Stephanie R. Robinson was not directly related to the Weinstein case.
“The concerns expressed to the College regarding [Sullivan and Robinson] were serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate and the noticeable absence of Faculty Dean leadership during critical moments deteriorated the climate in the house,” Dane wrote. “The College deemed this situation in the House to be untenable.”
Grassley pointed to his position as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, writing that the committee has “exclusive jurisdiction” over the tax-exempt status granted to institutions like Harvard. He added that universities’ commitment to “excellence and truth” provides the basis for their exempt status, and that threats to academic freedom imperil those values.
Grassley sent similar letters to the presidents of Duke University, Sarah Lawrence University, and Villanova University — schools where he identified the “potential suppression of academic freedom,” according to a Thursday press release.
Grassley’s letter to Bacow quoted from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s letter announcing Sullivan's removal and a June opinion article Sullivan wrote in the New York Times. Sullivan wrote that the administration “capitulated to protesters” and failed to protect his family from critical graffiti spraypainted on Winthrop’s walls in February.
Grassley questioned the University’s investigation into the vandalism and its evaluation of students’ claims of feeling “unsafe” in the House. He also asked Bacow whether the College’s orientation programming includes mentions of academic freedom.
The months that followed Sullivan’s announcement that he would represent Weinstein saw protests in Harvard Yard, sit-ins in the Winthrop dining hall, and petitions calling on administrators to remove him as resident dean.
In response to the outcry from undergraduates, the College announced a climate review of Winthrop and eventually decided not to renew Sullivan and Robinson’s contract after finding they had fostered an “untenable” climate. A day before the College’s announcement, The Crimson reported allegations from a dozen current and former Winthrop affiliates that Sullivan and Robinson created a toxic environment in the House during their decade as faculty deans.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing the inquiry, Grassley added that he is troubled by national trends in educational institutions’ handling of academic freedom, citing the cases at Harvard and other universities.
“Universities have long been centers of political correctness. But campus administrations increasingly seem to be indulging students who, when faced with uncomfortable ideas, complain of feeling ‘harmed’ or ‘unsafe,’” Grassley wrote. “This is reaching its breaking point and making it hard for professors to teach.”
Grassley’s concerns also reflect a national conversation about how to protect academic freedom on college campuses across the country. Robert L. Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in an emailed statement that his organization supports Grassley’s inquiry.
“Protecting free speech and academic freedom on campus is a major public concern, and these core democratic commitments are threatened on too many campuses,” Shibley wrote. “Congress must always consider the implications of its oversight activities on academic freedom.”