Harvard said on Saturday that a law professor who is representing Harvey Weinstein would not continue as faculty dean of an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, bowing to months of pressure from students.
The professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, who is a lecturer at the law school, have been the faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses for undergraduate students, since 2009. They were the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history.
But when Mr. Sullivan joined the defense team of Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, in January, many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Mr. Weinstein is scheduled to go to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges.
As the protests continued, with graffiti aimed at Mr. Sullivan appearing on a university building, Harvard administrators said they would conduct what they called a climate review of Winthrop House. In recent weeks, tensions have escalated, with a student sit-in and a lawsuit sparked by a clash between one of the protest leaders and two Winthrop House staff members who were seen as supporting Mr. Sullivan.
On Saturday, the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, sent an email to students and staff members at Winthrop House, informing them that he would not renew the appointments of Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson as faculty deans after their terms end on June 30. Mr. Khurana said in his email that the decision was informed “by a number of considerations.”
This May 10 story in the Harvard Crimson reports what those other “considerations” are. They are non-trivial.
This is a big deal because we should not want a society in which lawyers are punished by loss of position for defending unpopular clients. It is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy that legal defendants have a right to counsel. If the charges are true, then Harvey Weinstein behaved like a pig — but he absolutely has the right to a good defense. It would be shocking and wrong for Harvard to give in to the mob on this one, and it is certainly worrying that students at one of America’s elite-manufacturing universities believe a lawyer who represents an unpopular client is not fit to be part of their community. What happens at Harvard doesn’t stay at Harvard.
On the other hand, if the Crimson report is accurate, it sounds like Profs. Sullivan and Robinson were seriously problematic, and the university had ignored or downplayed problems with the way they ran the house. Maybe they really did deserve to be replaced, for reasons that had nothing to do with Harvey Weinstein. If so, it is nevertheless awful for Harvard to give the impression that students who spited Sullivan for being Weinstein’s lawyer succeeded in driving him out of Winthrop House over that issue. If not for the allegations of Winthrop House problems with the couple since 2016, this would be a genuinely outrageous turn of events.
UPDATE: Reader Ctbrgn writes:
The removal of Sullivan and Robinson has little to do with Harvey Weinstein. They were clearly disastrous as House Masters (oops, I mean “Faculty Dean,” the new, sanitized term for House Master). The fact that they had a turnover rate in House administrators that was at least four times the average tells you something. The fact that Winthrop House ranked dead last amog undergraduates as a place to live tells you the same. Winthrop House, as one of the so-called “River Houses” standing near the Cambridge River, has always been a prized residence due to its location and its beautiful architecture.
The dysfunction at Winthrop House was beginning to spill over into other parts of the university. Look into the spat between the Millers of Winthrop House and O’Keefe at Eliot House. What a mess!
The real scandal is why Harvard waited so long to act against Sullivan and Robinson, and why it is acting now and daring to act only under such a reprehensible guise. Weinstein is a pig, but serving as his defense lawyer should be no cause for losing a position. This is a very bad precedent. But we have been seeing many such precedents with the unraveling of America’s traditional liberal order.
The real problem here is cowardice. The Harvard Administration is guilty of cowardice for its failure to act earlier. And so are the Winthrop House tutors who publicly and boldly vowed to resign from their positions but then meekly remained.
Intersectional inanity and cravenness. That is 95% of American academia. And it is leading all of us to nowhere good.