Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana pointed to faculty members’ “academic freedom” in an interview Friday when asked to evaluate Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.’s decision to represent film producer Harvey Weinstein.
“I think a faculty member is given academic freedom to make decisions that are right for them,” Khurana said. “I also think that every individual is entitled to a vigorous defense. It's a cornerstone of our justice system.”
In January, Sullivan confirmed his decision to join Weinstein’s legal team as he faces five counts of sexual assault. In the weeks since, some students have protested the decision, circulating a petition calling for Sullivan’s removal and accusing College administrators of taking insufficient action to address how his representation affects victims of sexual harassment and assault on campus.
Khurana wrote in an email last week that he has spoken to Sullivan about the “responsibilities” he holds as a faculty dean to address students’ concerns. On Friday, Khurana said he has passed along feedback from College affiliates during those conversations.
“We've been actively engaged with Professor Sullivan and so I'm actively in communication with him, specifically sharing what I'm hearing from members of the community and what they're describing their needs so that Professor Sullivan can adjust to those needs,” Khurana said.
He added that he aims to ensure that the houses — and their faculty deans — meet the needs of the student body.
“My focus is on how well the community is doing and the well-being of the community, to make sure that the goals of the house system are being met,” he said.
Khurana’s comments echo Sullivan’s own defense of his decision to represent Weinstein. In a Jan. 25 email to Winthrop residents, Sullivan wrote defendants have a right to legal representation, including those he called “unpopular.”
“It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else – perhaps even more important,” Sullivan wrote. “To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”
In a second email to Winthrop residents, Sullivan outlined new “processes” the house will follow to respond to sexual assault and harassment, including designating Resident Dean Linda D. M. Chavers as a “point person” for issues of sexual misconduct.
Sullivan has also received criticism for publicly defending Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., who faces three Harvard-led investigations into allegations that he sexually harassed women in the research lab he founded. In a Jan. 29 RealClearInvestigations article, Sullivan — who is described as Fryer’s lawyer in the article — called Harvard’s inquiries into the allegations against Fryer “deeply flawed and deeply unfair” and said witnesses in the investigations had been coached.
While Sullivan did not directly answer whether he represents Fryer, parties involved in Title IX proceedings are discouraged from publicly discussing them, according to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s sexual and gender-based harassment policies.
Khurana deferred a series of questions about Sullivan’s comments on Fryer to FAS administrators.
Khurana’s comments follow FAS Dean Claudine Gay’s Feb. 7 criticism of Sullivan’s response to student concerns, calling it “insufficient.”
Asked if he agreed with Gay’s criticism, Khurana answered indirectly, saying his “highest priority” is students’ confidence in the house system.
“I think all of us, as faculty deans, recognize that importance that we need to make sure that our students feel that they have a full sense of understanding of what's happening in the house, and that it's an environment that they feel that is advancing their experience at the College,” Khurana said.
In addition to supervising the College’s faculty deans, Khurana has served as the faculty dean of Cabot House alongside Stephanie R. Khurana since 2010. On Friday, he reflected on his own approach to the role when discussing Sullivan’s response.
“The faculty dean plays a critical role in the house. It is where we are really thinking about how the students' academic, social, and personal well-being come together,” he said.
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.