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Ronald Sullivan, attorney for Harvey Weinstein, enters State Supreme Court in New York on April 26. (AP photo)
Ronald Sullivan, attorney for Harvey Weinstein, enters State Supreme Court in New York on April 26. (AP photo)

Harvard’s shameful history repeats itself

By Stephen L. Carter

Bloomberg Opinion

Next month will mark the 65th anniversary of one of the most craven moments in Harvard’s storied history: The dismissal of Dr. Helen Wendler Deane Markham, an assistant professor at the medical school, after she invoked the Fifth Amendment when hauled before a congressional committee investigating communism. Bowing to pressure from the red-hunting activists, the university refused to renew Markham’s contract. “When your present appointment expires on June 30, 1954,” Harvard coldly informed her, “you will not be reappointed to any of the faculties of the university.”

Perhaps it’s in honor of that all-but-forgotten anniversary that the school has chosen to behave cravenly once more, bowing to pressure from today’s activists and dismissing — also effective June 30 — Professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of Winthrop House, a student residence. (1) Although the school cited “the climate” at the house as justification, nobody takes this excuse seriously. Everyone understands that the true reason is student unrest because of Sullivan’s decision to represent the egregious Harvey Weinstein. That’s why the students who demanded his ouster are celebrating their victory.

Weinstein, to be sure, is a monster, even if only a fraction of the allegations against him are true. But as I argued in March, representing unpopular and occasionally even vicious clients is what defense lawyers do. If Harvard plans to punish faculty for their unpopular associations, it ought to publish a codex of what’s acceptable.

Harvard shouldn’t get away with its subterfuge that the decision on Sullivan has nothing to do with Weinstein, just as the school should never have gotten away with its pretense that Markham was dismissed for “misconduct” during the McCarthy era. For Harvard has been down this road before; Markham wasn’t alone in being punished by the university for associating with those the activists of the day despised.

As the historian Ellen W. Schrecker details in her powerful book, “No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities,” the leading campuses mostly met the demands of the Red-hunters with cowardice. And Harvard, despite its pretensions to having stood tall, ranked among the worst offenders.

In that same summer of 1954, the great sociologist Robert Bellah, in those days a graduate student, was summoned by McGeorge Bundy, dean of arts and sciences, who proceeded to quiz him about his past Communist involvements and all but ordered him to tell federal investigators everything. (2) Then there’s the case of Leon Kamin, who would later chair the psychology department at Princeton, but was back then a junior instructor at Harvard. After Kamin invoked the Fifth Amendment before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s own Senate committee, he was informed by the school that he, like Markham, had committed misconduct, and that his teaching contract, like Markham’s, would not be renewed. (3)

A pair of Harvard law students, the Lubell twins, were also targeted by the McCarthyites for their radical connections. The law school, in a masterpiece of pettifoggery, refused to kick them out, settling instead for publicly condemning their “course of conduct” and taking away their scholarships. Their classmates, in the grand tradition imitated by today’s activists, completed the humiliation, expelling the Lubells from various student organizations, among them the Harvard Law Review.

In a clever bit of casuistry, Harvard insisted all along that it was in fact defending academic freedom against the McCarthyist onslaught. After all, the administration pointed out, it had resisted calls to fire a tenured professor. In the Weinstein contretemps, the university’s defenders are offering a version of the same argument. Sullivan, after all, will still have tenure at the law school.

Both claims represent versions of the same fecklessness: The university will excuse what it must but punish where it can.

And let’s be quite clear: Deterrence is the point. In the 1950s, as Schrecker notes, Harvard made prospective faculty members clear themselves with federal investigators even while insisting that it would defend its professors against the McCarthyist onslaught. Those who were already onboard were expected to “purge” the radical connections in their past. Else the school’s protection would vanish.

Similarly, the university’s treatment of Sullivan sends a message to today’s professors that they had best act cautiously, toeing the correct lines, because if the same forces of protest are unleashed against them, Harvard administrators will side with the protesters. (And what Weinstein has to do with Robinson’s fitness to serve as a faculty dean is left unexplained. Guilt by association through marriage, perhaps?)

I quite understand the claim that the issues are different today than they were then, and, in particular, that right and left have switched sides. But the mischief is the same. As I have also noted before, my great-uncle, Alphaeus Hunton, went to prison during the McCarthy era for refusing to name names, and afterward was unemployable in the academy.

That bit of family history has made me something of an absolutist on these matters. So it should not be surprising that I see no significant difference between the people baying for Sullivan’s head because they’re furious about his choice of client and the people who bayed for my great-uncle’s head because they were furious about his choice of comrades.

Not every Harvard professor remained silent in the face of the McCarthyite pressures of the 1950s. The great legal historian Mark DeWolfe Howe argued courageously that the school should not punish members of the faculty unless they actually broke the law. But Howe’s pleas, like those of the current Harvard law faculty on Sullivan’s behalf, fell on the deaf ears of a university determined to placate the activists.

Harvard, to be sure, was hardly alone in refusing to stand against the Red-hunters. To its shame, the academy as a whole mostly joined the hunt. The tragedy is that Harvard isn’t alone today either. Once more, the academy is on the hunt for those of unpopular views. When the anti-Sullivan protests began, I genuinely believed that this time around Harvard would be heroic. I was mistaken.

In the end, Harvard weathered the McCarthyite storm simply because it is Harvard. The school will weather the current storm for no better reason. And the reputations demolished along the way simply serve as reminders that there will always be people willing to sacrifice others but never themselves for their principles.


  • Both are friends of mine, and people I admire.
  • Two decades later, Bellah and Bundy would disagree sharply over whether the dean made any actual threats.
  • Yale, where I teach, scarcely behaved better. The school protected Thomas Emerson, an outspoken libertarian who taught at the law school and defended Communists. But Emerson had tenure. When Vern Countryman, also targeted by the Red-hunters, was unanimously voted tenure by the law faculty, the university rejected the appointment.
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