Harvard Fires Dean Representing Harvey Weinstein

The university has bowed to student pressure.

The New York Times reports what on the surface seems like a case of letting the inmates run the asylum at one of our most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

Harvard said on Saturday that a law professor who is representing Harvey Weinstein would not continue as faculty dean of an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, bowing to months of pressure from students.

The professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, who is a lecturer at the law school, have been the faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses for undergraduate students, since 2009. They were the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history.

But when Mr. Sullivan joined the defense team of Mr. Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, in January, many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Mr. Weinstein is scheduled to go to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges.

As the protests continued, with graffiti aimed at Mr. Sullivan appearing on a university building, Harvard administrators said they would conduct what they called a climate review of Winthrop House. In recent weeks, tensions have escalated, with a student sit-in and a lawsuit sparked by a clash between one of the protest leaders and two Winthrop House staff members who were seen as supporting Mr. Sullivan.

On Saturday, the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, sent an email to students and staff members at Winthrop House, informing them that he would not renew the appointments of Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson as faculty deans after their terms end on June 30. Mr. Khurana said in his email that the decision 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,” he 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.”

In a statement, Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Robinson said, “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.”

New York Times, “Harvard Drops Harvey Weinstein Lawyer as a Faculty Dean

My reaction on reading this story was: This is a lousy message to send to the students. They’re being rewarded for ignorance and petulance.

That those accused of crimes are entitled to vigorous legal representation is a cornerstone of our system of justice. It’s simply absurd to suggest that Sullivan, by representing Weinstein, is someone championing the crimes of which he is accused.

The “climate” issue comes across as a dodge. It is the protestors, not the deans, who have created a hostile climate. But, it turns out, there’s more to it than that.

A report in the Harvard Crimson sheds more light on the issue:

When Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. met with House tutors on Jan. 27 to defend his representation of accused sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, House scholar-in-residence Robert E. Proctor made a passing reference to issues from “three years ago.”

The reference may have gone unnoticed by newer staffers, but a couple of tutors at the meeting interpreted it as a warning recalling the ugly history of complaints about leadership and perceived retaliation that have dogged Winthrop for years.

Since Sullivan announced he would represent Weinstein, scores of Harvard affiliates and outside commentators have debated the impact of his decision on students. Staff, though, have largely remained silent.
Shortly after Sullivan announced his decision to represent Weinstein, he and his wife and co-faculty dean Stephanie R. Robinson assembled House staff for the Jan. 27 meeting. During the meeting, he openly berated then-Winthrop tutor Katie B. Kohn, accusing her of organizing students against him and Robinson, and read from a prepared statement defending his representation of Weinstein, according to Kohn and Winthrop tutor Priya Shanmugam, who both attended the meeting.
Kohn wrote in an emailed statement that some tutors took Proctor’s reference to issues from three years prior to be a “clear threat.”

She said she understood Proctor to be referring to Winthrop’s history of management problems and alleged retaliation against tutors that Sullivan and Robinson deemed insufficiently supportive of them.

The problems included a revolving door of House Administrators, threats to push out resident tutors Sullivan and Robinson perceived as disloyal, and repeated meetings with College administrators about concerns with the faculty deans’ leadership. At one point in 2016, more than half of the Winthrop resident tutor staff made a pact to leave the House in protest, though they ultimately stayed.

“During our decade of service we have been, and remain, committed to creating a home for all students in Winthrop House,” Sullivan wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “Our commitment extends to creating an appropriate environment for the House’s tutors and staff.”

In his statement, Sullivan denied current and former Winthrop staff members’ characterizations of years of events in the House.

“In any event, the matters you raise did not occur as you suggest,” he wrote. “To the extent that you are repeating the suppositions and speculations of others, they are misinformed or mistaken.” He did not, however, identify which allegations he disputed.

Harvard charges faculty deans with creating a home for students beyond that of a dorm. For three out of their four years at the College, most students eat, sleep, and socialize in their house. “The Houses serve as the foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College,” according to the Dean of Students Office’s website.

But seven current and former Winthrop staff, including tutors, told The Crimson in interviews conducted over the past three months that they experienced a culture of fear while they worked or lived in the House — fear of being chastised in front of their colleagues, fear of damage to their career prospects, and fear of being fired.

This account is based on interviews with 14 people with direct knowledge of the culture of Winthrop House. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from Sullivan and Robinson, both of whom are major figures in the legal profession.

— “‘With Us or Against Us’: Current, Former Winthrop Affiliates Say Faculty Deans Created a Toxic Environment Stretching Back Years

There’s quite a bit more there but it sounds like there was indeed a hostile leadership climate at Winthrop House going back quite some time. It may simply be that the Weinstein angle added fuel to rather than starting this fire.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Education, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Whether it is situations like this or political races where a candidate who are attorneys are attacked for clients they have represented in the past, this one always gets me angry.

    Everyone is entitled to a vigorous and competent legal representation, and this is particularly true in criminal cases. A lawyer’s job is to represent their clients zealously within the boundaries of the law. Punishing them for doing a job that is essential to the proper functioning of the American legal system is maddening.

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  2. grumpy realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: ….except that in this case it looks like the students’ complaints were simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    I think Harvard did the wrong thing, however. Sullivan in no way should have been booted out because of his defence of Weinstein as per student complaints. Harvard should have dug more into Sullivan’s actions at Winthrop House and the culture he created there, as well as publicised the results of their research. As it is, it looks like Harvard is a pushover for student whining.

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  3. Kit says:

    That those accused of crimes are entitled to vigorous legal representation is a cornerstone of our system of justice. It’s simply absurd to suggest that Sullivan, by representing Weinstein, is someone championing the crimes of which he is accused.

    By virtue of his position, Sullivan also represents Harvard. Personally, I have no problem with him taking such a case, but the real issue is how he conducts the case. The French have an expression: déformation professionnelle. I think lawyers tend to conflate the law with justice, that “vigorous legal representation” must always be honorable provided it stay this side of the law, no matter if it stain the innocent and allow the guilty to walk free. Harvard likely finds itself between maximalist student demands, on the one hand, and a criminal defence that it would find unsavory, on the other.

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  4. @Doug Mataconis:

    Everyone is entitled to a vigorous and competent legal representation, and this is particularly true in criminal cases. A lawyer’s job is to represent their clients zealously within the boundaries of the law. Punishing them for doing a job that is essential to the proper functioning of the American legal system is maddening.

    I agree that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense. And an attorney defending someone who is accused of heinous crimes is doing an important job.

    But none of that means that Sullivan is entitled to be faculty deans for Winthrop House, especially given what that role entails.

    I do not have a strong opinion about this situation, but I think it isn’t about whether Weinstein deserves a defense (he does), but whether a very specific job should be undertaken by Sullivan.

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  5. @James: I think your headline is misleading (as has been some of the coverage). Sullivan was not “dean” in the way most people would think of the term. It sounds more like an RA on steroids, to be honest.

    And, of course, Sullivan and his wife retain their profesorships.

    One does presume that they were being paid a stipend of some kind to serve in this role, and perhaps even housing, so this is not insignificant.

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  6. @Kit:

    By virtue of his position, Sullivan also represents Harvard

    This is key.

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  7. One suspects that this story influenced some of the thinking here (rightly or wrongly).

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  8. One last nitpick: he wasn’t re-appointed (his ten year ten is up next month). Now, that may be really unusual, or it might be common (I don’t know), but it isn’t that same thing as “fired” (unless reappointment is normally automatic).

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  9. Bill J says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Whether it is situations like this or political races where a candidate who are attorneys are attacked for clients they have represented in the past, this one always gets me angry.

    Down here in Palm Beach County Florida we just had a Judge kicked off the bench for her attacks against her opponent in the 2016 race for that judgeship.

    https://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-pn-judge-santino-supreme-court-ruling-20180702-story.html

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  10. dmichael says:

    What Steven said (each time). Sloppy and misleading headline writing and overblown rhetoric.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Harvard should have dug more into Sullivan’s actions at Winthrop House and the culture he created there, as well as publicised the results of their research. As it is, it looks like Harvard is a pushover for student whining.”

    Exactly! Sadly, the (perceived) need to do the job quickly sometimes overwhelms the need to do the job well.

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  12. Tyrell says:

    @grumpy realist: “Student whining”: This is the “overprotected” generation of the “helicopter parents”*.
    This certainly does nothing to help the declining image and reputation of Harvard. This was an opportunity to have a discussion about jurisprudence and turn this into an effective teaching lesson. Instead, the Harvard leadership yelled fire and took off out the exits. What’s next? Demands for no homework? No more final exams? What goes around comes around.
    * “overprotected”, which is an understatement if there ever was. This is the “participation award” bunch, everyone makes the team, no “F’s”, no red ink on their third-grade spelling tests, no failure. “Self-esteem” is everything. Their “helicopter parents” follow them to college to make sure that their professors don’t give them a C and that they have their lunch money. “Fear of being chastised” indeed. Make the team run laps if they lose? No more of that stuff. Some leagues don’t even keep score!
    These are the “leaders” of the future. But just look at who is getting all the medical and engineering jobs now. While their parents are wondering if they will ever go out and get a job instead of laying around the house playing “Fortnite”.
    But all is not lost. Leaders like Coach Saban manage to take some of these kids and turn them into winners.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    It appears, as James reports, that there was a whole lot of water under the dam before the Weinstein situation came up. I also agree that everyone is entitled to a defense, lawyers take the cases that show up, and they should not be judged on the causes they happen to have represented. But I struggle a bit with this. As a hypothetical, if it turns out Sullivan has a history of getting big bucks to defend rich sleazoids, would it be OK to shun him then?

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  14. @Tyrell:

    “Student whining”: This is the “overprotected” generation of the “helicopter parents”*.

    This is part of why I don’t like the framing of the story as “students get dean fired” because it feeds too easily into simplistic conservative media narratives about higher education and kids these days.

    Do I think that students can sometimes acts like children (how odd) and that sometimes admin capitulates? (of course). But this narrative that all the snowflakes are taking higher education to hell in a handbasket is just not true.

    This certainly does nothing to help the declining image and reputation of Harvard.

    Ah yes, who wants to go to Harvard or hire Harvard grads? Sigh.

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  15. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But none of that means that Sullivan is entitled to be faculty deans for Winthrop House, especially given what that role entails.

    I do not have a strong opinion about this situation, but I think it isn’t about whether Weinstein deserves a defense (he does), but whether a very specific job should be undertaken by Sullivan.

    Not knowing the details of this situation, I generally agree with this, particularly since Harvard is a private institution.

    However, I think there is an issue here regarding changing expectations. University campuses and some business fields have, of late, become much more sensitive about employee activities outside of the workplace that are completely legitimate but disliked by activist groups. These groups then mobilize to punish and deplatform those who cross whatever moral red-line they’ve set. I find this trend (at least it appears to me to be a trend) troubling.

    Yes, no one is “entitled” to this or any other position but, for their own sake, institutions and businesses should be careful and clear about their standards and requirements and not arbitrarily change those standards based on popularity or the demands of vocal activitists (not saying that’s what happened in this case as I don’t know the details, I’m speaking generally).

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  16. Marina Grondona says:

    Sure everyone is entitled to vigourous defense but these kids are not part of the Weinstien lawsuit- they are kids in a house on a college campus that they pay loads of money in FEDERAL STUDENT LOANS to be at. AS PER FEDERAL LENDING LAWS THE CAMPUS MUST KEEP AN ENVIRONMENT OF SAFETYor HARVARD CANNOT COLLECT THE FEDERAL LOAN MONEY- IN ADDITION THESE KIDS ARE majority under 21 years of age. A criminal needs to be represented in a legal environment his case needs not to be brought into campus housing. Many a campus of under the age of 21 years old. Further some of the females under 21 who lived in Winthrop House may have been sexually assaulted in their youth. It created an environment of uncertainty and confusion for young women just entering college and the world and they are paying Federal student loans for that experience? The Dean of Winthrop should have realized or taken a haitus through the trial- this is not the law school this is an undergraduate house and these are literally kids half not even over the age of 21. Some even entering at 16 and 17 years of age. Sorry Doug Mataconis but a house full of under 21 year old. The media is disgusting to paint this and play this as a race issue-An undergraduate house is not a place to bring a legal issue like the Weinstein case to- in no situation would any female at any age be comfortable knowing that a man who is vigourously defending someone who has been accused of serial rape has access to their keys, personal information, parents, friends and home life off campus. NOT ONE FEMALE WALKING ON PLANET EARTH WOULD BE COMFORTABLE LIVING UNDER A HOUSED DIRECTED BY SOMEONE REPRESENTING THAT CASE. Harvard was completely in their purview and certainly gave him a chance to choose between the case or his career as a Dean.@Kit:

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  17. Teve says:

    Do I think that students can sometimes acts like children (how odd) and that sometimes admin capitulates? (of course). But this narrative that all the snowflakes are taking higher education to hell in a handbasket is just not true.

    based on the number of whack jobs and street preachers I saw babbling their nonsense on the grounds at North Carolina State, UNC, and Duke, I’d say there’s a hell of a lot more free speech going on in those places than, say, a corporate function at Merck or IBM.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think your headline is misleading (as has been some of the coverage). Sullivan was not “dean” in the way most people would think of the term. It sounds more like an RA on steroids, to be honest.

    I briefly published the story based on the NYT coverage and then stumbled on the Crimson essay within literally 3-4 minutes. So I unpublished and recrafted it with a new lede but didn’t change the headline.

    I agree that he’s not a dean in the sense you are at Troy but that’s what they call him at Harvard. Which is weird, since they appear to have traditional deans as well—the person who fired Sullivan signed the letter “Dean Khurana.” And “fire” isn’t quite the right word, either, although I gather that retention is customary. (To be honest, a single 10-year term would seem more than adequate for such a position.)

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