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Harvard, Remove Dean Sullivan

On Jan. 25, The Crimson reported Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.’s decision to defend in court Harvey Weinstein, the man whose infamous sexual misconduct and assault of over a dozen women initiated the #MeToo movement in 2017. In the following week, Sullivan upheld his choice to represent Weinstein through an email addressing the Winthrop community. Subsequent reports revealed Sullivan has also come out in public support of Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. against allegations of sexual harassment from female employees. In his comments about Fryer’s case, Sullivan disparaged both the #MeToo movement and Harvard’s Title IX procedures, calling the University’s investigations “deeply flawed and deeply unfair.”

Sullivan’s actions and statements are unfitting of a faculty dean. We condemn Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein and defend Fryer while serving as a Winthrop faculty dean. We further condemn the Harvard administration’s inaction in light of these actions.

We believe deeply in every defendant's right to attorney. But there are many lawyers who could have defended Weinstein. While Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein might be consistent with his precedent of defending the “unpopular defendant,” it is not consistent with his responsibility to Harvard students. As a faculty dean, he has a responsibility to consider how his actions will affect the environment in which his students learn and live. Winthrop students have already experienced the detrimental effects of his decision to defend Weinstein.

For survivors, hearing about other cases of sexual violence and assault can be triggering, even if only from the daily news cycle. For survivors in Winthrop, living in a House with someone who is a daily reminder of the Weinstein case could be deeply traumatic. Houses are meant to be places of refuge, where all students can feel safe and supported by faculty, administrators, staff, and peers. Sullivan’s role on the case will certainly hinder his ability to create a safe space for Winthrop survivors. His decision to designate Winthrop House Resident Dean Linda D. M. Chavers as the House’s “point person” for sexual assault reflects his inability to properly support survivors in the community he purports to lead.

Sullivan’s comments regarding Fryer’s case further indicate a complete disregard for survivors at Harvard. Fryer has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple Harvard affiliates, meaning that Sullivan’s public defense entails casting doubt upon the testimony of members of the Harvard community. Moreover, his comments indicate a disdain for Harvard’s Title IX policy, the same policy students in his House rely on when filing complaints of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or assault.

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Faculty deans are not just symbolic roles, but important “pastoral” and administrative positions for which a commitment to the well-being of members of the House community is indispensable. First, faculty deans hire and oversee all House staff, including those who implement Title IX interim measures such as deadline extensions or room changes (such as the Allston Burr Resident Dean and House Administrator), or those who provide support to survivors (CARE tutors). It is therefore the responsibility of the faculty dean to uphold the standards of Title IX. Perhaps more importantly, however, faculty deans are meant to make students of their House feel welcomed, supported, and encouraged to raise their voices against any form of discrimination. Sullivan’s dismissiveness of Winthrop students’ concerns, evident in his decision to take the Weinstein case, his emails, and his perceived intransigence when one of us attended his office hours, is a fundamental failure in his role as faculty dean.

Harvard has a history of inaction when it comes to addressing sexual misconduct and supporting survivors. In 2014, the op-ed “Dear Harvard, You Win” revealed Harvard’s inability to provide justice or even empathy to survivors. Harvard’s last climate survey, in 2015, reported that 16 percent of surveyed Harvard undergraduate females reported they had experienced nonconsensual sexual penetration or attempted nonconsensual penetration during their time at the College. Harvard failed to address sexual misconduct from Government Professor Emeritus Jorge I. Dominguez for nearly 40 years, and he still retains his professor emeritus status today. The administration cannot continue to be complicit while students suffer. As others have said, the faculty dean system is a top-down structure with limited accountability. Because of this, it is the College’s responsibility to oversee faculty deans and to intervene when they can no longer support healthy House life.

We believe Harvard should do what is right for survivors. For these reasons, we demand that the Harvard administration immediately remove Sullivan from his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House. Furthermore, we demand that Sullivan formally apologize for making students and survivors feel ignored in their own Houses. Finally, as Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck said at a student-led rally on Monday, the faculty dean role entails “a certain amount of hard decision-making.” We believe that this role must be clarified.

We demand that Harvard develop a system of accountability for faculty deans and establish clearer standards for faculty dean behavior. To start, we suggest that faculty deans should ensure the safety and well-being of all students and workers in their houses, including survivors, transgender and gender non-conforming people, BGLTQ people, undocumented, DACAmented, and TPS people, indigenous people, first generation and low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and people otherwise marginalized, and respect the concerns and voices of all people in their House communities.

Danukshi A. K. Mudannayake ’20, a Crimson Design editor, is a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator in Eliot House. Remedy Ryan ’21 is a Social Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentrator in Lowell House. She is an organizer with Our Harvard Can Do Better.

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