On Saturday, Harvard University buckled to pressure from #MeToo student activists in announcing that it would not renew the contract of Ronald S. Sullivan as faculty dean. Sullivan, a criminal defense attorney and a professor at Harvard Law School, was (until recently) a member of the legal defense team of disgraced Hollywood movie mogul and accused rapist Harvey Weinstein.
No sooner did Sullivan join Weinstein’s legal team than student activists began demanding that Harvard remove him and his wife Stephanie Robinson from their positions at Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence where Sullivan and Robinson have served as faculty deans since 2009. Sullivan and Robinson were Harvard’s first African-American residential deans.
Students claimed Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein was “trauma inducing” and made them feel “unsafe.” They started an online petition demanding Sullivan’s ouster. When their demands were not immediately met, activists spray-painted Winthrop House with the phrases “Your silence is violence” and “Whose side are you on?” Sit-ins and demonstrations ensued.
It's understandable that students find the accusations against Weinstein to be despicable… They are. But Weinstein is not Sullivan’s first high-profile criminal client. Sullivan was previously part of the legal team that represented former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez when he was tried for double murder. Harvard students did not feel “unsafe” then. Apparently, accused murderers deserve a vigorous legal defense. But those accused of sex crimes do not.
Writing in the New York Times, Sullivan’s Harvard Law School colleague Randall Kennedy argues:
Harvard College appears to have ratified the proposition that it is inappropriate for a faculty dean to defend a person reviled by a substantial number of students — a position that would disqualify a long list of stalwart defenders of civil liberties and civil rights, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.
Earlier in the year, when the controversy first broke, Kennedy and an additional 51 members of the Harvard Law School faculty signed a letter that called upon Harvard to:
Recognize that such legal advocacy in service of constitutional principles is not only fully consistent with Sullivan’s roles of law professor and dean of an undergraduate house, but also one of the many possible models that resident deans can provide in teaching, mentoring and advising students.
Harvard, it seems, has rejected that advice.
Shortly after Harvard announced it would not renew Sullivan’s and Robinson’s contracts, Sullivan announced his withdrawal from the Weinstein case, claiming a conflict with his teaching schedule. Harvard’s decision not to renew Sullivan’s faculty dean contract does not affect his teaching positions at the law school. But by forcing Sullivan out of his faculty dean position, #MeToo activists, nevertheless, got their scalp.