In April 2018, I attended a protest in support of Harvard University Health Services employee Mayli Shing. Shing claimed she was fired after she reported workplace sexual harassment and racism. Harvard claimed she was fired for “insubordinate conduct.” It was one of several protests that took place in response, including one that drew about forty students in February.
As covered in The Harvard Independent, Shing received a letter stating that she was terminated for, among other issues, “sitting at [her] desk at 8:30 a.m., well before [her] scheduled 9 a.m. starting time.”
Shing—who depended on public transportation to get to work—said she came into the building early as she did not want to wait outside in the cold of a Boston winter morning. According to Geoffrey Carens, Shing’s representative from the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, her termination came after her work hours were shortened and she had challenges submitting work on time.
“I’ve been a rep for almost thirty years now, and I’ve never seen such a fragile basis for discipline,” Carens told The Independent.
Shing—an immigrant, single mother of two, and employee of Harvard for over ten years—is a textbook example of injustice at the intersection of race, gender, and class. The protest I attended—I was on campus to attend a lecture by Cornel West—also included members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers as a part of the Harvard No Layoffs Campaign, alongside students from the Student Labor Action Movement. The two groups were joined by members of other university unions like the Harvard University Dining Services Union. Shing has also received official support from the Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union.
“I’ve never seen such a fragile basis for discipline.”
Yet the protest I attended, drew less than two dozen students. Much like the homeless people in Harvard Square who beg Ivy League elites for food and spare change, the protest was largely ignored. Just seventy-three people contributed to Shing’s unemployment fund.
I will be a visiting fellow at Harvard this fall, and I had this memory in the back of my mind, when I watched Harvard students become galvanized to protest law professor Ronald Sullivan in May for his decision to represent movie mogul and accused rapist Harvey Weinstein.
Unlike Shing’s supervisor, Sullivan himself has never been accused of racism or sexual harassment. And he has never fired an immigrant mother because she arrived early to work. In fact, Sullivan’s faculty profile describes someone on the right side of social justice. He successfully represented Michael Brown’s family in their wrongful death claim against Ferguson. He has represented women who survived sexual assault pro bono. Huffington Post describes him as “the man who dealt the biggest blow to mass incarceration,” for winning the release of more wrongfully incarcerated persons than anyone in U.S. history.
However, if you look at the student protests against him, quipped a Boston Globe reporter, “you might think Harvey Weinstein had just moved onto Harvard’s campus.” Upset that a House Dean would also choose to represent an accused rapist, students rallied on campus with tape over their mouths. Some sprayed graffiti on the home of Sullivan and his family. They organized a petition to remove him from his position as dean of Winthrop House, with five times more names attached to it than the Gofundme.com campaign to help Shing.
These efforts had real consequences. Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson were ousted from their positions as deans at Harvard. Meanwhile, Shing never got her job back. She settled out of court, while her supervisor retains his position in Health Services at Harvard.
A look at the language used by each protest highlights that disjunction between them. Shing’s webpage is clear and to the point: “As nobody gets terminated for coming to work a little early, activists believe Mayli was terminated merely because she insisted on being treated fairly at work, and not harassed.”
The petition targeting Sullivan could hardly be more melodramatic. The students claim his decision to represent Weinstein is not just wrong but “deeply trauma-inducing,” causing “a great amount of fear and hurt” while undermining the “safety” of Harvard’s students.
At a time when the median family income of a student enrolled at Harvard is more than $168,000, perhaps no one should be surprised that many students are blind to the injustices committed against the most vulnerable individuals in their community—the underpaid and precarious workers.
As Amber A’Lee Frost wrote in a letter to a working-class student who was perplexed by what passed as politics on his campus, “most of the activism at the Ivies is about as radical as a country club renovation.”
One is hard-pressed to find students who stand in defense of the low-wage workers who clean their toilets and serve them dinner at the campus dining hall.
But Harvard is hardly an outlier when one looks at campus activism in America. In an era of protests aimed at professors who read James Baldwin out loud and buildings with the word “lynch” in their name, one is hard-pressed to find students who stand in defense of the low-wage workers who clean their toilets and serve them dinner at the campus dining hall. Even less common are protests that concern the relationship between American universities and the exploitation and domination of workers abroad.
This point was made clear to me when I observed UW-Madison students riled up about a theatre named after Fredric March. When he was an undergraduate, March was a member of an interfraternity honor society named the Ku Klux Klan. Later in life, he fought for a range of progressive causes. In 1964, he hosted a benefit for the NAACP. Before that, he co-founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. At one point, he was even investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Researchers found no evidence that his honor society was associated with the racist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. To the contrary, its name was later changed because “people confused it with the name of a non-collegiate secret organization of the same name,” as reported in a 1923 issue of the campus paper, The Daily Cardinal. Yet, students had no time for nuance and debate. They demanded the “urgent removal” of March’s name, which was done.
As one of the hundreds of students involved put it, the existence of a theatre named after March is not just wrong, it is “threatening,” and it will even “exclude” students of color who may not be willing to enter the theater. Other students accused those who were hesitant to change the name—who “did not believe that the emotions of these students were valid at face value”—of perpetuating further malice. As they put it, “disbelief is a hate and bias incident.” It is “literally a hostile act.” Accordingly, students filed hate and bias reports against those who did not agree.
Like the University of California at Berkeley and other universities in the 1960s and early 1970s, UW-Madison used to be a bastion of radicalism, where students used marches and occupations to protest partnerships between their institution and those institutions that put profits and empire over people.
The recent waves of activism on campuses reflects a class blindness in America. As Walter Benn Michaels writes in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, “as economic inequality rises, so does the enthusiasm for addressing every other, non-economic kind of inequality.”
To be sure, the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants’ Association, the oldest graduate student employee union in the U.S., has a long history of fighting for higher wages and fee waivers.
But as Columbia University professor Jack Halberstam has expressed, “some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain.”
On June 12, Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson published a YouTube video in defense of their actions and academic freedom. They say their dismissal as deans “is symptomatic of a larger societal problem” manifested in the “increasing sense that feelings, and emotions, and ad hominem attacks can be, or even should be, substitutes for intellectual argument.” Against a backdrop of support from senior scholars, they explain that people will hear more from them on these issues in the very near future.
Those on the left should join them in their defense of academic freedom and open debate. Those of us in academia need to push student politics beyond the narrow demands for new statues, surnames, and “safe spaces.” We must work to develop a campus community that cares about Mayli Shing and all those who do not have the luxury to fret about who the campus theatre is named after.