Harvard Won't Renew Leadership Post of Controversial Scholar

Students in residential college he has led said the law professor's decision to defend Harvey Weinstein was "trauma inducing." He also has a long record fighting for those incarcerated unfairly.

May 13, 2019
Ronald Sullivan (left) enters court in January with Harvey Weinstein (second from right).
(Timothy Clary / AFP / Getty Images)

Harvard University on Saturday announced that it will not renew the dean position of a law professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who has (with his wife) been leading one of the university's residential colleges.

Sullivan has been widely praised in his career for his work on behalf of people who have been unfairly incarcerated. And the professor and his wife are the first African Americans to lead one of Harvard's residential colleges. But students have been demanding Sullivan's ouster since he joined the legal team defending Harvey Weinstein, the film executive who is facing sexual assault charges and has become for many the personification of the abuses revealed by the Me Too movement.

The nonrenewal of the college deanship does not affect Sullivan's faculty position in the law school, where he is the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute. The position of dean of a residential college was previously called a "house master" position, and is considered an honor, one with key out-of-the-classroom educational functions. The calls for Sullivan to be removed have raised questions of academic freedom and of whether undergraduates respect the idea that everyone accused of crimes is entitled to a legal defense.

Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, announced that he would not renew the deanship of Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, in an email message to students in Winthrop College, where Sullivan and Robinson have been deans.

The email suggested that the decision was made for reasons not having to do with Sullivan's work defending Weinstein.

"My decision not to renew the faculty deans was informed by a number of considerations. Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college," Khurana wrote. "The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. I have concluded that the situation in the house is untenable."

He added, however, "This is a regrettable situation and a very hard decision to make. I have long admired your faculty deans’ commitment to justice and civic engagement, as well as the good work they have done in support of diversity in their house community. I know that some of you are also proud of these efforts. I also know that some of you have been greatly helped and supported by your faculty deans in difficult situations. This decision in no way lessens my gratitude to them for their contributions to the college."

In a joint statement, Sullivan and Robinson criticized the decision.

"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," they said. "We will now take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options. We are sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time."

Much of Sullivan's career has been spent fighting for those many Harvard students would want their professors helping. He represented the family of Michael Brown in reaching a settlement with the city of Ferguson, Mo., on a wrongful death claim, for example.

Sullivan has been credited with securing the release of thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people through his work with various criminal justice agencies.

A 2017 column in The Huffington Post called him an "unsung hero" and "the man who dealt the biggest blow to mass Incarceration."

A petition calling for Sullivan's removal as dean says that while Weinstein has a right to a lawyer, Sullivan's work on the case makes it impossible for him to effectively be a college dean.

"For victims of sexual assault and rape on this campus who already feel disempowered by the sheer lack of activity in reprimanding such behavior, the developments of Dean Sullivan's professional work are not only upsetting, but deeply trauma inducing," the petition says.

"To be perfectly explicit: I am not saying Dean Sullivan should not be defending Weinstein," adds the petition. "I am saying that in his role as a house dean, his defense of such a figure induces a great amount of fear and hurt in victims of the crimes that Weinstein is accused of, and although anyone facing the law is innocent until proven guilty, the scope of the Weinstein case still literally shakes people on this campus to this day. His role on Weinstein's team, and position as a community leader, are not mutually exclusive and the former has incredibly harmful implications for the latter."

An editorial by student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, said that Sullivan could no longer offer support to women in the house who have issues related to sexual assault. "Sullivan has made himself available to his students through holding office hours to address students’ concerns. Even so, when a mentor and authority figure makes a decision to defend an individual facing allegations of sexual misconduct, he has in effect closed his doors to any student who might look to him for support or solace regarding these issues," said the editorial.

Samantha Harris, writing about the controversy over Sullivan on the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, before the university opted not to renew his deanship, said that the "evils" of which Weinstein are accused do not justify "dispensing with our society’s fundamental belief that even the worst criminals are innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to a robust defense."

Harris said Harvard should have been strongly defending Sullivan. "Certainly, those calling for Ronald Sullivan’s removal from his faculty dean position are not arguing that he shouldn’t be permitted to defend Harvey Weinstein," Harris wrote. "But making pariahs of people who defend the accused sends the dangerous message that those who choose to do that work -- work that is foundational to our system of justice -- do so at their own peril."

In an email Saturday, after Harvard's announcement, Harris said, "It is difficult to see Dean Khurana's decision to remove Prof. Sullivan and his wife from their positions at Winthrop House as anything but a shameful capitulation to the pressure to drop Sullivan over his decision to represent Harvey Weinstein. While the university is suddenly pointing to older concerns about the climate at Winthrop House, the timing of Dean Khurana's announcement -- in the midst of student protests over Sullivan's representation of Weinstein, and just days after he personally attended an anti-Sullivan sit-in -- speaks for itself."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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