The Disturbing Incident of the Dean in the Night

I am angry. In recent months, I have engaged in a number of heated discussions with friends involved in various aspects of the Harvard Law Spring that has swept through this campus. I have been alternatively frustrated with the way some of these movements have articulated their agendas, impressed by the range of associations which have collaborated to lend their concerns greater volume, and deeply humbled by the philosophical and intellectual heft of some of my fellow students.

But I was never angry. Until tonight.

Tonight, I received an email from Dean Minnow referring to ‘A Disturbing Incident’. There is a concept in Internet marketing, perhaps familiar to many of you, called ‘clickbait’. If there were ever a subject line and a sender more primed to make a bleary-eyed Harvard Law School kid stop reading about strict scrutiny and click on an email, I challenge you to find it. And yet, unlike a hilarious Buzzfeed listicle about cats doing stupid things, the Dean duped me. Yet again.

You do not have to have read the email in question to divine its contents. The template is by now terrifyingly familiar. An address to the Harvard Law School community; a rundown of the ‘incident’ in question; some law-school exam hypothetical postulation about The Constitution and Rights and Speech and Community; an invocation of the legal profession and its bedrock moral conscience; and … nothing.

Where the laugh-out-loud cat picture should have been is a grey email signature that is now so familiar as to appear in my top 10 Google Chat recommendations. I would love to Gchat with the Dean if I were not so certain it would end in equivocation, hand-wringing politeness, and a host of ambiguous and rhetorical introspective questions as take home party favors. As a loud-mouthed Australian, I can only hope that one day I will reach the apotheosis of political correctness. But the administration of one of this country’s finest law schools should not share my aspiration.

Wasserstein Hall is awash with more demands than you can poke a stick at. Ostensibly, every other day, somebody is offended by something, and the Dean and her cronies on the third floor must pay with blood. Being the Dean, or indeed anyone involved in the administration, during this Harvard Law Spring, must be a truly thankless, exhausting experience. There is, however, one demand that has not been made. And it is the one that must be at the top of the list if myriad hours of advocacy, protest and learning are to count for anything. The demand for candor.

This should not be read as an ad hominem attack on the Dean or anyone in her administration. They do an admirable job of attending to the spotfires that seemingly flare up in the time it takes to check one’s privilege. But that depiction demonstrates the real issue. The fire extinguishers of mealy-mouthed email communications might put out minor conflagrations but only a water cannon of frank, direct correspondence will defuse the minefield of combustibles blanketing this institution.

Do not get me wrong. This is not about taking a position on whether or not this ‘disturbing incident’ was hate speech or just a terrible attempt at an insult. Or about whether taking down or leaving up a poster curbs freedom of speech. Much less is it about whether the removal of the shield destroys a history we must remember or one we should forget. These things matter, of course. But they are the subjects of intense negotiation to be hashed out by my far more able, informed and aggressively intelligent colleagues. In the maelstrom that has descended over the school, I cling proudly to the ability to choose to be politically agnostic and let greater minds work out the hard stuff.

However what I do care about, deeply, is legitimate communication. This is what angers me tonight. What is the essence of leadership and administrative propriety if the words we use have no meaning or are laden with fluff? I am yet to run a statistical analysis of my inbox but I am fairly convinced the data would show that ‘allegedly’ is its most common word by a wide margin. I have been bewildered by the glacial pace of my friends’ advocacy movements to date but now I understand it: one simply cannot maintain momentum in the face of such a formidably blah administration. If the Law School wants the real dialogue, real space for debate and real community engagement it says it wants, it has to come to the table with more than prevarication and humdrum reportage.

In this age of information overload, I feel comfortable declaring that I do not want to hear from the administration unless it has something real to report. Concrete allegations, plans of action and meaningful policy changes would be a fitting place to start. Or a good cat video.

David Seidler is an LLM of the Class of 2016.

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