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A teachable moment

Professor Randall Kennedy has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the demands that Professor Ronald Sullivan step down as faculty dean of Winthrop House. “Harvard students are outraged over Ronald Sullivan’s legal work,” reads the subtitle. “They should learn from it instead.” Kennedy here puts his finger on a particularly troubling aspect of the way this situation is unfolding. 

Harvard’s first job is to educate its students. Having them in residence provides an extraordinary opportunity to teach them about the complexities of life, the ways in which human beings are multidimensional and communities of different human beings with different histories, ambitions, and ideals can cooperate and foster progress. Residential life can thereby teach a key element of democratic citizenship, so threatened today: how to engage in a spirit of civic optimism with people whose decisions and actions you find disagreeable.

So far that sounds like a standard justification for diversity, with which no one could disagree. But the next step is where the rubber meets the road. A society in which each member plays multiple roles, and in which those constellations of personae differ from individual to individual, can hold together peacefully and productively only through the exercise of reason applied to deep but sometimes competing commitments to individual freedom and to the common good. Such a commitment requires both sublimation of one’s own emotions and empathy toward others. It is inconsistent with a view that discord is intolerable and personal comfort is supreme. As Kennedy says, 
Those calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal as a faculty dean … are displaying an array of disturbingly widespread tendencies. One is impatience with drawing essential distinctions such as that between a lawyer and his client. Another is a willingness to minimize or dispense with important safeguards like fair trials. Yet another is a tendency to resort to demonization.

The public response of Harvard officials thus far has been to draw a sharp divide between Sullivan’s educational and pastoral roles, seemingly restricting “education” to book-learning. According to the Crimson,
“When we think about the faculty dean role, part of it is the faculty dean as an educator, someone that’s helping to connect students to, frankly, the excitement of intellectual and academic life,” [FAS Dean Claudine] Gay said. “But there’s also a pastoral role, sort of an expectation of a special responsibility to the well-being of the students who are part of the community.”
On that score, Dean Gay found Sullivan’s handling of the controversy “insufficient.” Dean Khurana echoed those sentiments, while coldly defending Sullivan’s “academic freedom.” I am not at all sure that is the right category; does Dean Khurana mean to suggest that rights to academic freedom end at the gates of the Harvard Houses, lest someone do or say something that offends other residents?

Dean Khurana then charged former Freshman Dean Tom Dingman to conduct a “Climate Review” of Winthrop House. Having more or less publicly thrown Sullivan under the bus, that is, Khurana has asked Dingman to find out how students are feeling and apparently plans to hold Sullivan to a spookily vague climatological standard. (Dingman is a loyal servant of Harvard and an old friend, but he is also the dean who, invoking the same troubling dichotomy between intellect and feelings, asked students for a public pledge of their commitment to the principle that “kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.”)

I suspect that it is very hard for Sullivan to speak up for himself in the way that Kennedy has supported him and indeed has supported Harvard’s full educational role. Sullivan is in a more ethically constrained situation than the nurse I mentioned in an earlier post. A medical professional can say what she wants about the patient she is treating as long as she treats him and respects his medical privacy. But Sullivan, having agreed to defend Weinstein, can speak about him only in the voice of his lawyer.

Yet there is no reason why Harvard—Khurana, or Gay, or President Bacow, or a student group, or some department, or the Safra Center, or some other Harvard entity—could not stage a thoughtful educational forum to explore this nuanced situation. I am thinking of the sort of thing the Harvard Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society sponsored about single-gender organizations, though it would not have to be framed as a debate. In the absence of any effort to raise the discussion to a more rational level, an important teachable moment will be lost. “We can only hope,” as Kennedy concludes, “that Harvard authorities will decline to defer to expressions of noisy discomfort and instead adhere to those intellectual and moral tenets that sometimes must bear the uncomfortable burden of complexity.”

How can I set up a small website for a local group?

Robin wants to find a way to create a site that doesn’t require coding experience

As chair of our local allotment association, I’m wondering about setting up a website to provide information and news to new and existing allotmenteers. Can this be done with basic tech knowledge and zero experience of web design or coding? There’s a bewildering number of services offering to host websites, sell domain names, provide easy-to-use templates and so on at a range of prices. What are the catches with the free or cheap services on offer?

We have a Facebook group but nobody in the association is very keen to keep this active. Robin

It’s a pity you don’t like the idea of using Facebook because this is generally the quickest and easiest way for a small group to get online. In fact, if an organisation has a physical manifestation – a school, park or church, allotments, a restaurant or so on – then it may already have a Facebook page. If so, you can apply to take it over. If that fails, you can start your own page and compete with it.

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"Auditing" the membership practices of student organizations

The College’s Committee on Student Life is considering an audit of “comp” processes — membership training or vetting exercises for student organizations — to eliminate requirements which some committee members believe are “detrimental to campus culture,” according to several attendees of the Feb. 14 committee meeting. (Harvard Crimson)
Does no one hear how creepy this sounds?
In the Church of Scientologyauditing is a process wherein the auditor takes an individual, known as a "preclear", through times in their life and gets rid of any hold negative situations have on them. … Auditing is considered "a technical measure," that according to the Church, "lifts the burdened individual, the 'preclear,' from a level of spiritual distress to a level of insight and inner self-realization." The process is meant to bring the individual to clear status. (Wikipedia, "Auditing – Scientology")

How can I avoid paying a TV Licence fee?

Steve doesn’t watch TV and wants to stop paying the UK licence fee, but now it applies to smartphones, consoles and the BBC iPlayer app on all devices

I have a TV set for streaming videos from my NAS, but I have given up on the BBC, and I never watch ITV, Channel 4 and certainly not 5. What exactly do I need to do to stop paying a TV Licence fee? Is unplugging my aerial enough?Steve

In the old world of analogue broadcasting, this was an easy question. “Watching TV” just meant feeding a broadcast signal to a box containing a TV tuner and a cathode ray tube. If you did that in the UK then you needed a TV licence. In today’s digital world, however, you may need a TV licence if your only device is a smartphone.

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What about John Adams?

Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe has a hilarious column on the Winthrop House story. John Adams defended British soldiers who opened fire on American rebels. Should he have lost his Harvard library privileges?

It is never a good idea to read the comments on newspaper pieces, but I couldn't resist. Leaving the trolls aside, it's amazing how self-righteous and humorless some of them are. Weinstein, as one comment and many previous opinions have argued, is entitled to a lawyer. But anybody could have defended him, so Sullivan should have turned him down. But the whole point of the column was to force the question of whether Adams should have turned down the British soldiers. I have never heard it said that he was the only one who would take them on.

At the same time, a new task force has been announced, the Working Group on Symbols and Spaces at Harvard College, to be chaired by the estimable Professor Ali Asani. The interview is quite abstract, so it is hard to tell where this project is going. There is a nice reminder of the importance of the randomization of the Houses that occurred almost 25 years ago, pursuant to a recommendation of a faculty committee I co-chaired. In part the discourse seems to be about re-asserting the mission of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations; its future has been somewhat in doubt since the death of its remarkable founding director, Allen Counter. So that is all to the good too.

And I wonder how far this example goes:
 It is natural for these students who are discovering facets of their ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial identity as part of the College experience to want to explore those facets within affinity groups. 
Was gender intentionally omitted from that list, lest it suggest that women should not be punished for getting together with other women off-campus? On the other hand, the interview goes on to say,
We see people are retreating into their own communities, engaging only with people like themselves. We can see such tendencies on campus. For example, the central concern regarding final clubs were policies that led to certain students excluding other students from their social networks, determining who belonged and who did not.
This sounds to me like another revision of the history, or at least a very different emphasis on a matter for which the University has offered a variety of explanations. The trouble with this argument -- that the decision was about social exclusivity, as opposed to the idea that it was all about either sexual assault or gender exclusion -- is that no one ever showed any data documenting what the ethnic or social demography of the Final Clubs was today. At best, the University would from time to time fall back, without evidence, on the implication that they were all full of Hornblowers and Wigglesworths as they allegedly were in the nineteenth century, just hiding places for those damned Puritans we excised from Fair Harvard. I am pretty sure that is not what they look like today. And of course, the sororities were never socially exclusive, so if that is the revisionist argument, maybe the committee can rethink the decision.

In the worst case, the committee will spend its time on the discomfort students are said to experience because of the presence at Harvard of buildings with objectionable names, or speakers with objectionable views or histories. If that is where the committee chooses to go, Cullen has given it quite a list of cases to consider. Is it time to rename Stoughton Hall? After all, who would want to live in a building named in honor of the judge who cruelly sent the innocent Salem "witches" to their graves?

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