A Call for Open, Respectful Debate

Harvard professors who lost posts leading undergraduate residential college amid criticism of defense of Harvey Weinstein vow to promote change at the university.

June 17, 2019
 
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Stephanie Robinson

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Stephanie Robinson, two married Harvard University law professors, were not renewed in their positions as faculty deans of the residential Winthrop House after a series of controversies set off by Sullivan's decision to defend Harvey Weinstein. The couple has now released a video saying they are launching a new effort to speak out to promote open debate at the university.

Sullivan and Robinson found themselves at the center of controversy last month as students demanded action over the fact Sullivan chose to serve on the legal defense team for Weinstein. Weinstein, a former Hollywood producer, is facing sexual assault charges and a series of allegations of sexual harassment. The charges against him were a major spark for the Me Too movement. Sullivan said in a new video he is no longer defending Weinstein, as the new trial date interfered with his teaching schedule, but he rejected the idea that his defense of anyone should limit his role at the university.

Appearing with Robinson in the video, Sullivan discussed the decision not to reappoint the two and said definitively it was because he chose to defend Weinstein. However, Sullivan said what’s at stake in the situation goes beyond him and threatened the “great democratic experiment.”

“In America, everyone is entitled to a defense,” Sullivan said in the video. “In America, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Freedom of intellectual inquiry and reasoned discourse and debate are central characteristics of higher education.”

Harvard maintains Sullivan and Robinson were not renewed due to other issues as faculty deans, not over Sullivan’s decision to defend Weinstein.

“As we have repeatedly stated, the decision not to renew Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson was not directly related to the Weinstein representation, but rather due to their failure to fulfill their responsibilities as faculty deans of Winthrop House,” Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dean said via email.

In his message to the campus over the decision not to renew Sullivan and Robinson, Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana said there had been “numerous” reports of the two creating a negative climate within Winthrop House.

“Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college. The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous,” Khurana said. “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.”

Sullivan said that all at Harvard, including its “most senior leadership,” know the decision was based on his defense of Weinstein. Students at Harvard led protests and created petitions calling for his removal. Sullivan said Harvard is failing to uphold its own values.

“When Harvard University, to which the entire world looks for leadership abandons its commitments to academic freedom and leadership, open and unfettered debate, it undermines its responsibilities and its opportunities,” Sullivan said. “Regrettably, Harvard’s administrators acted in ways grossly antagonistic to the very norms that make Harvard the epitome of higher education.”

Robinson said that dissent was “essential” but that demonization was “unacceptable,” which she said is part of a larger societal problem that Sullivan and Robinson hope to continue to address. Robinson specifically listed “feelings, emotions and ad hominem attacks” as things that have no place in an intellectual argument. Robinson said the Harvard students and faculty members would continue to hear from her and Sullivan regarding these issues.

"Ron and I are here today to say that dissent is essential, but that demonization is unacceptable," Robinson said. "Since our time as students here at Harvard, we have joined in vigorous protest for the causes that are important to us. But we did not demonize the people with whom we disagreed. We did not ever attack the character of innocents."

“A university, it’s a place where bright young minds are supposed to learn the discipline of framing and grappling with arguments and … respecting and understanding the views of others,” Robinson said. “So when a place like Harvard pays insufficient attention to that vital work, it not only betrays the ambitions of the university and its students, but it quite frankly betrays our academic traditions.”

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