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Restoring the City on the Hill: Learning from the Winthrop Controversy

Harvard’s decision not to renew the contracts of Winthrop House Faculty Deans Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie R. Robinson for another term on Saturday doubtless came as a relief to many Harvard students, faculty, staff, and alumni. For months, many of us have watched the predictable consequences of Sullivan’s unwise decision to represent Harvey Weinstein while serving as dean with sadness. What could have been a teachable moment on how to recognize when one’s professional opportunities are incompatible with leadership responsibilities in a community became a testament not to equal justice under the law or putting those in one’s charge first but to the power of prideful ambition to strain the ties that bind us together.

As a former Winthrop House Committee co-chair who met with Sullivan and Robinson when they were being considered for their positions, I find the administration’s conspicuous silence during most of this episode even more troubling — particularly in light of last week’s revelations that Winthrop tutors and staff brought concerns about alleged retaliation by Sullivan and Robinson to administrators since at least 2016. While it may be tempting to let this moment pass as we head into the summer, University President Lawrence S. Bacow should use the aftermath of this crisis to provide a full account to the Harvard community on what happened at Winthrop and take steps to ensure that it never happens again.

Most immediately, Bacow should investigate the substance of the allegations of the faculty deans’ retaliatory behavior and what steps, if any, the University took to address those allegations. That includes examining the actions of senior officials such as the dean of the College, who is responsible for ensuring that such claims are taken seriously and that the Houses remain vibrant, healthy communities. If any administrators suppressed credible accusations in order to avoid public controversy, they should be removed from their positions immediately and the College should extend an apology to the affected tutors, staff members, and students.

The University’s senior leadership should also launch a review of its response to Sullivan’s decision and the subsequent fallout, including the tumult of lawsuits between Harvard affiliates, the initiation of the anonymous climate survey, and public communication on its standards for faculty deans. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s initial invocation of Sullivan’s right to academic freedom when questioned about the impact of his decision to represent Weinstein indicates that senior officials at Harvard have not fully contemplated the distinction between leading a House and serving solely as a faculty member. The administration’s unwillingness to comment as the bonds of community frayed on campus — justified by allusions to ongoing litigation — deserves similar scrutiny. Silence is not leadership.

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These reviews should be complemented by recommendations on reforms to prevent any confusion on the responsibilities and prerogatives of faculty deans. Harvard needs a revised code of conduct that describes its expectations and delineates what kinds of outside activities are inappropriate for faculty members while they serve in administrative leadership roles. While it seems obvious that a professor who has formal authority in the University’s administration should not take outside work that conflicts with their duties, it is now clear that Massachusetts Hall needs to clarify its standards: not merely to prevent unwise decisions but to protect professors’ undeniable rights to publish, speak, and work on projects that have no significant impact on House life.

More positively, Bacow should convene a task force of current and former faculty deans, resident deans, and House administrators to delineate the mission of the house system and a vision not merely for its brick-and-mortar renewal but for a renewal of its role in intellectual, social, and moral growth at Harvard. They could do worse than beginning their thinking with retiring Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck’s op-ed on what leading a House means.

Crises can yield opportunities. Bacow, the Board of Overseers, and the Harvard Corporation have a chance to demonstrate the leadership qualities that Harvard claims to prize but sometimes struggles to embody: responsibility, candor, reflection, and wisdom. As one class of Winthrop students graduates and another arrives, I can think of few moments better for Harvard’s administration to model its values for the University and the world.

Will C. Quinn ’10 co-chaired the Winthrop House Committee from 2009-2010. He is a first-year Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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