On Saturday, Harvard University finally caved to student outrage, demoting the first black co-faculty deans of Winthrop House after students complained that law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. was defending Harvey Weinstein in court. Apparently oblivious to the basic principle that even those accused of horrific crimes deserve legal representation and a fair trial, the students have condemned Sullivan’s legal actions as “trauma-inducing.”
“I am writing to let you know that Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson will not be continuing as your Faculty Deans when their term ends on June 30, 2019,” Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email to students at Winthrop House. Robinson is Sullivan’s wife. Khurana wrote that Sullivan and Robinson have been unable to resolve “serious and numerous” “concerns about the climate in Winthrop House.”
What concerns exactly? These complaints began in January, when Sullivan joined Weinstein’s legal defense team.
Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is almost certainly guilty of a long train of sexual assaults, as more than 80 women have come forward with claims ranging from harassment to rape. Even though he is likely guilty, Weinstein deserves legal representation and a fair trial. These due process rights also protect his alleged victims, since the failure of a thorough legal defense will likely vindicate their claims.
Yet in February, 50 Harvard students demanded Sullivan’s removal, protesting with signs in front of Winthrop House. The students protested two legal defenses: the dean’s decision to defend Weinstein and his decision to defend Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. in Harvard Title IX complaints. Many Title IX offices do not afford due process rights to those accused of sexual harassment. Indeed, that is exactly what Sullivan said of the Fryer case. He attacked the Title IX investigation as “cruel and unfair” because there was “no semblance of due process or the presumption of innocence.”
Danu Mudannayake, one of the students who led the protest, also launched a Change.org petition which has garnered 341 signatures as of Tuesday. In that petition, Mudannayake wrote, “For victims of sexual assault and rape on this campus who already feel disempowered by the sheer lack of activity in reprimanding such behaviour, the developments of Dean Sullivan’s professional work are not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing.”
Mudannayake argued that Sullivan’s legal defenses show he does not “first and foremost value the safety of the students he lives with in Winthrop House.” His decision to defend Weinstein “induces a great amount of fear and hurt in victims of the cases that Weinstein is accused of, and although anyone facing the law is innocent until proven guilty, the scope of the Weinstein case still liberally shakes people on this campus to this day.”
In other words, even though a legal defense for Weinstein is the right thing for Sullivan to do, students’ feelings of victimization mean Sullivan is harming them in doing his duty.
The activism did not stop at the protest or the petition, however. In March, students left graffiti reading “Down w/ Sullivan!” “Our rage is self-defense,” and “Whose side are you on?”
Khurana foolishly gave credence to these absurd accusations by launching an investigation last month. As a result of that wrongheaded investigation, Sullivan and Robinson will be demoted and booted from Winthrop House.
“We are surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today,” they said in a statement, according to Reason Magazine. “We believed the discussions we were having with high-level university representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks.”
As Reason‘s Robby Soave pointed out, Sullivan has an impressive resume: “He advised Sen. Barack Obama on criminal justice issues in 2008, represented the family of Michael Brown in their suit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, and is responsible for the release of more than 6,000 wrongfully incarcerated people. His clients have included accused murderers and terrorists, consistent with the liberal principle that everyone accused of a crime deserves expert legal representation.”
Harvard’s decision to boot Sullivan and Robinson from Winthrop House does not jeopardize their appointments at the law school. Sullivan will remain the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute.
Even so, this decision is tragic and terrifying for the climate of free speech on the campus of America’s most prominent university. If Harvard will demote the first black co-faculty dean — with his impressive resume — over concerns that his job is “trauma-inducing,” is any speech safe from student psychobabble complaints?
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.