Harvard students are petitioning for the removal of law professor Ronald Sullivan, the house dean (previously called House Master) of Winthrop House. The school has announced a “climate review” on whether Sullivan can continue as dean after he agreed to represent accused sexual harassers Harvey Weinstein and Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer. It appears that even the representation of people accused of sexual harassment is now considered its a threatening or improper act.
According to The Harvard Crimson, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote to house affiliates to stay that there were “climate concerns” at the House and its environment. However, this action only occurred after Sullivan publicly assumed the role as counsel for Weinstein. Sullivan wrote a letter to residents last month, explaining what should be obvious: lawyers represent unpopular clients because there is a presumption of innocence that must be defended. Acknowledging that some students had raised concerns, he explained “It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else – perhaps even more important. To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”
That was not enough for some who feel that Sullivan should not represent clients that they object to. At one rally, Hilda M. Jordan objected to the representation and declared “You are a faculty dean, not just an attorney.” That is demonstrably true but there is no reason why either role impacts the other. There are many academic and administrative deans who represent unpopular clients or causes. However, just as their academic writings should not be considered by a court in evaluating their court performance, their legal representation should not be used to evaluate their academic performance.
Danukshi “Danu” A.K. Mudannayake, a Crimson editor, helped organize the protests and declared “The issue is that he cannot simultaneously hold that role while still having a charade of saying that he can actually protect the integrity of his students.” Of course you can hold such roles simultaneously because your role as a role is entirely separate and distinct from that as Dean.
The Association of Black Harvard Women also demanded Sullivan’s removal. It accused him of failing “the Black women in this community” and sexual assault victims in Winthrop will not “feel comfortable” due to his creation of a “harmful situation.” They added “However, none of your past support for the black community justifies your defense of Harvey Weinstein. Your positive contributions in the past do not have bearing on what you are doing now.”
As with the ongoing assaults on free speech on our campuses, this controversy shows the erosion of core principles that once defined us. These students want to punish faculty for representing unpopular individuals without considering the implications of their actions. Law professors have long represented the most hated figures in our society — guaranteeing due process for all citizens.
I have no idea how Sullivan has performed as house dean overall. However, the focus on his representation of criminal defenses is a chilling example of the rising intolerance on our campuses for opposing values or causes. Lowell Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck is quoted as supporting the students and seeking a reevaluation of the faculty dean position. Why? Because Sullivan is functioning as an lawyer in a high-profile case?
There is a teachable moment that is again being missed. The answer to these students is that they have no grounds to object to a faculty member because they do not like one of his clients or his views of sexual harassment litigation. Just as there is no guilt by association, there is no guilt by representation for academics who support the rights of others. In the same fashion, he has no grounds to object to any opposing views on those subjects. That is part of the pluralistic and free environment that we maintain in high education.