Harvard Shouldn’t Punish Harvey Weinstein’s Attorney

By dismissing Ronald Sullivan Jr. from his position as a faculty dean, the university fails to recognize the importance of due process and freedom of speech.

Still of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as seen in 2006.
Harvard University Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Saturday, Harvard University announced that it was declining to renew the appointments of law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. and his wife, lecturer Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of Winthrop House, a residence for undergraduates. (They will both stay on as professors.) Sullivan and Robinson have served in those roles for a decade and are the first black professors in Harvard’s history to receive faculty dean appointments.

Harvard’s decision came on the heels of loud and persistent student protests demanding that Sullivan be removed as dean. His unforgiveable sin? Joining the defense team of Harvey Weinstein, who faces charges of rape and sexual assault in state court in Manhattan. (On Sunday, news broke that days earlier, Sullivan had announced that he will no longer represent Weinstein, though he may still advise on the case.) For months, Sullivan has been under sustained attack for purportedly putting the interests of an unpopular defendant over those of the students whose well-being had been entrusted to him as the dean of an undergraduate residence.

In February, an op-ed titled “Harvard, Remove Dean Sullivan” written by two Harvard undergraduates, stated that his presence at Winthrop “could be deeply traumatic” for survivors who would be “triggered” by seeing “someone who is a daily reminder of Weinstein’s case.” Petitions and other expressions of student outrage quickly followed. Graffiti appeared on Harvard buildings and on Sullivan’s office door. One message: “down with Sullivan.” On May 6, 178 Harvard students filled the Winthrop dining hall to demand Sullivan’s ouster, holding #MeToo and “Reclaim Winthrop” signs.

The decision to jettison Sullivan and Robinson—in response to what Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana called an “untenable” situation—is craven, foolish, and sends the wrong message to academics who also practice law: If your clients aren’t likable enough, your students may get upset and your school will throw you—and the Sixth Amendment—under the bus. It also sends the wrong message to students: Your school will appease your heartfelt outrage at the costs of the fundamental values—constitutional, ethical, and moral—that it is supposed to be instilling.

One of graffiti messages asked Sullivan, “Whose side are you on?” The answer should be obvious: the side of justice. Justice requires due process. In addition to being a law professor, Sullivan is a criminal defense lawyer, which means his job is to represent the accused—no matter how despised, no matter how heinous the accusation. That right—the Sixth Amendment right to a competent lawyer who can provide effective assistance of counsel—lies at the heart of our Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Another right, no less important, is the First Amendment right to speak and associate freely. It is this right, above all, that universities exist to defend.

Not at Harvard, apparently. In an apparent concession to the student demand, Khurana said that “concerns about the climate in the Winthrop House” called for him to make the “very hard decision” to replace Sullivan and Robinson. Khurana provided no details about what he called the “serious and numerous” problems the students and staff conveyed to him about the professors. The Harvard Crimson has reported on criticisms of Sullivan and Robinson going back to 2016. Those concerns centered around a high turnover rate among the staff and accusations by some staff and students that the deans fostered a climate of fear and intimidation. It may be that some of those criticisms are legitimate (Sullivan denies them), but I am skeptical that these allegations, some dating back two years, played a pivotal in Harvard’s decision over the weekend.

That decision was a poor one. It is possible to be a residential dean who is empathic and open to student concerns while simultaneously representing a reviled accused sexual predator. To act as if those two roles are mutually exclusive is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be a criminal defense attorney and a dean of a student residence. It implies that an academic who dares stand up in court as an attorney to an accused rapist is pro-rape, anti-feminist, and sending a message to survivors of sexual assault that their pain and harm is not real.

As a feminist academic who defends young men accused of sexual assault, I can tell you that I do the work I do because I believe competent legal representation for the accused is a critical component of any adjudication system. That belief has driven the choices I have made throughout my career, including the formative seven years I spent as a trial attorney in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Los Angeles where, yes, I represented men charged with very serious sex crimes. The idea that I can’t be a zealous defense lawyer to any client while remaining a feminist who is empathic to my students is anathema—in fact it’s sexist and reductive. Crucial to feminism and to strong student mentoring skills is a set of progressive values that demands above all fairness, an open mind, and equal treatment. In Sullivan’s case, I can’t help but wonder if it might have gone differently if he were a white man making these same choices.

It makes me sad and angry how few people seem to understand this. When I published an op-ed in the New York Times about the representation I do—pro bono, with my students in the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Racial Justice Clinic—on behalf of men of color facing expulsion in campus Title IX cases, the hateful reactions nearly overwhelmed me. One caller left a message on my voicemail at work saying I should be fired, set on fire, and buried deep underground.

The Harvard Black Law Students Association put it best. In a statement issued on March 31, in the midst of the protests, the organization wrote: “HBLSA finds it important that we speak to the controversy and make the ask of Harvard University to both unequivocally support survivors of sexual violence and to do so in a way that does not scapegoat Professor Sullivan for the University’s failings to address sexual violence on campus.”

It’s a shame no one listened. But it does give me hope. There are future lawyers out there who get it. Unfortunately, their argument—easily the best one—did not carry the day.