Legal Education

Harvard Law professor leaves Harvey Weinstein defense team, then loses faculty dean post

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Harvard Law School

Photo courtesy of Harvard Law School.

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard Law School professor, resigned last week from Harvey Weinstein’s criminal defense team. However, that didn’t stop the university’s decision to remove him and his wife, lecturer Stephanie Robinson, from their roles as faculty deans for undergraduate student housing, a position that oversees students’ academic progress and overall well-being.

Weinstein is charged with sexual assault, and Sullivan, who directs the law school’s Criminal Justice Institute, joined his defense team in January, the Harvard Crimson reports. Various campus groups protested Sullivan’s involvement in the case, as well as him speaking against a Harvard Title IX investigation regarding sexual harassment allegations that involve economics professor Roland Gerhard Fryer Jr., the student paper reported in an earlier article.

University Dean Rakesh Khurana announced in an email Saturday that Sullivan and Robinson would not continue on as faculty deans at Harvard’s Winthrop House after June 30. The faculty dean positions are unrelated to their law school appointments, Robinson told the ABA Journal in an email.

“We are surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today. We believed the discussions we were having with high-level university representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks. We will now take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options,” the couple wrote in a statement. They were appointed to the positions in 2009, according to the New York Times.

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

The university’s decision to not renew Sullivan and Robinson as faculty deans was “informed by a number of considerations,” and students and staff over the past few weeks have expressed concern about the climate at Winthrop House, Khurana wrote in his email, which did not list specifics about the concerns.

The Harvard Crimson reports that Sullivan and Robinson have been accused of berating house tutors in meetings and threatening retaliation against staff who didn’t support them. In the past three years Winthrop House has had nine house administrators, while the average tenure of house administrators at other Harvard residences is 9.75 years, the story states. In a statement to the Crimson, Sullivan denied staff members’ characterizations of things that happened in the residence and stated that he and Robinson were committed to creating a home for students at Winthrop House.

Following a student petition seeking Sullivan’s removal as faculty dean, Harvard administration announced in March that it would conduct a “climate review” of how students living at Winthrop House viewed the situation, the New York Times reported. In response, a March 7 letter, signed by 52 Harvard law professors, stated that a decision to end the couple’s role as faculty deans is inconsistent with the university’s commitment to freedom of ideas.

“I do believe this involves academic speech. I also believe it involves the fundamental role of a defense attorneys in our criminal justice system,” says Janet Halley, one of the professors who signed the March 7 letter in support of Sullivan.

Stephanie Robinson Stephanie Robinson.

She adds that both Sullivan and Robinson are black, as is the economic professor Fryer, and says that Harvard needs to “check its privilege and search its conscious.”

Others doubt that Sullivan’s representation of an unpopular client led to Harvard removing him and Robinson from the faculty dean positions.

“That would lead to criticism from the political right, who’d say it’s yet another example of a university being intolerant. One would wonder if there’s something else going on,” says Neal E. Devins, a constitutional law professor at William & Mary.

Richard Thompson Ford, a law professor at Stanford University, and his wife, Nixon Peabody partner Marlene J. Williams, serve as resident fellows at the school’s Kimball Hall. The position involves supervising staff and serving as a mentor and role model to students, he says.

“It can be demanding in terms of determining how to deal with potentially controversial questions, and that’s especially true in the current political climate, where things are highly charged,” says Ford, whose academic work centers on civil rights and anti-discrimination law.

A way to deal with Sullivan’s situation, Ford adds, would be to have multiple conversations about why he agreed to represent Weinstein. After students started a petition seeking his removal, Sullivan sent out an email, offering to meet with them and discuss concerns, the Harvard Crimson reported. His communication noted the importance of a fair criminal justice system, without the presumption of guilt, and he wrote that Winthrop House is a residence that welcomes all viewpoints.

“If one wants to strike a balance in ensuring that every student feels supported and safe, and feels like the dorm is their home, and at the same time allowing for a free and robust exchange of ideas, it would be unfortunate if the university moved in the direction of trying to completely sanitize the activities of people outside the dorm,” Ford says.

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