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Association of Black Harvard Women Calls on Winthrop Dean Sullivan to Resign

Winthrop House Commencement
Winthrop House Faculty Dean and Law School Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., speaks at diploma ceremonies in 2010.

The Association of Black Harvard Women executive board emailed University administrators Thursday afternoon, calling on Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. to step down from his post following his decision to represent film producer Harvey Weinstein as he stands accused of rape.

ABHW also sent their letter to Sullivan and the email lists of several campus affinity groups, according to ABHW President Kacey E. Gill ’20. She added that they plan to send it to every faculty dean within the coming days.

“We write to you today to ask that you step down from your position as the Faculty Dean of Winthrop House. If you do not step down, we will implore Harvard College’s Administration to remove you from your position,” the letter reads.

The letter states that Sullivan’s actions have been “shocking” and “illuminating.” The ABHW members added that Sullivan has “failed” them.

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“What has been made especially clear is that you have failed us,” the letter states. “You have failed the Black women in this community, not only as one of the few Black Faculty Deans on campus but also as a community leader--someone who we respected and looked to for guidance.”

Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment.

The New York Post first reported that Sullivan — who is a Harvard Law School professor — joined Weinstein’s legal team on Jan. 23. Weinstein is facing five charges in his Manhattan sexual abuse case stemming from allegations that he raped a woman and forcibly performed oral sex on another.

Two days after news of his decision broke, Sullivan wrote an email to Winthrop residents defending his new position as Weinstein’s lawyer and wrote that defense lawyers have a duty to represent the “unpopular defendant.”

In January, Sullivan also publicly remarked on Harvard investigations into allegations that Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., sexually harassed women in the research lab he founded. Sullivan questioned the value of the #MeToo movement and alleged that witnesses in the Harvard inquiries had been coached in an article published by RealClearInvestigations.

Sullivan later followed up with another missive to Winthrop affiliates, this time laying out “processes” for the house going forward, including appointing Resident Dean Linda D. M. Chavers as the “point person” for sexual assault issues.

In the letter, the ABHW executive committee wrote that Sullivan’s responses to student concerns demonstrates he is unfit to serve as a faculty dean.

“You have compromised the trust placed in you to serve and listen to survivors needing your sympathy and support as they deal with their trauma,” the letter reads. “You have made clear through conversations with individual members of the Black community as well as your written communications to Winthrop residents, that you are apathetic and unwilling to listen to how taking this case has negatively impacted survivors in our community.”

In the wake of Sullivan’s decision, several administrators have commented on how faculty deans’ professional decisions impact their roles in the houses.

At a student-run rally calling on the College to remove Sullivan earlier this month, Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck questioned the wisdom of his choice to represent Weinstein and speculated on how his decision might affect Winthrop residents.

“Is it good judgement to undertake such a high-profile defense?” Eck said. “For our part, we expect the choices to be made for our students and in the interest of our students.”

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who supervises faculty deans, said in a Feb. 15 interview that he has had discussions with Sullivan about how Sullivan can best serve the Winthrop's needs.

The ABHW letter cites a series of “repercussions” within Winthrop and at the College resulting from Sullivan’s actions. The executive committee wrote that sexual assault victims in Winthrop will not “feel comfortable” reporting their experiences, and that he has created a “harmful situation” for black students.

Sullivan’s first email to Winthrop residents cited his work exonerating wrongfully convicted defendants and “the nature of criminal defense.” The authors of the ABHW letter wrote that Sullivan’s work does not “have bearing” on his decision to represent Weinstein.

“In conversations with members of the community, you’ve consistently brought up your history with exonerating significant numbers of black men,” the ABHW members wrote. “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.”

Gill wrote in an email that ABHW members first discussed Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein at a January event titled “Black Girls Matter.” The group met several more times before deciding to write the letter, both as an executive board and with members at large. They aimed to solicit feedback on how to best approach commenting on Sullivan’s status as a faculty dean.

Gill added that the executive committee hopes the letter will draw student support in its call for Sullivan to step down.

“We believe that we couldn’t stay silent on this issue any longer. Action needs to be taken, and we hope that the voices of black women on this campus will have impact and can help push change—even when it’s difficult or unsavory,” she wrote.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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