Fifty-two Harvard Law School professors signed a letter supporting their fellow Professor and Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. as he faces on-campus scrutiny following his decision to represent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Law School professors Janet E. Halley and Elizabeth Bartholet ’62 organized the effort, sending a draft to other professors and faculty clinicians early last week. Fifty-two faculty members — including Professor Emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz, former Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, and Professor Laurence H. Tribe — signed on to the document, and the resulting letter was published in the Boston Globe on Friday.
The letter itself does not mention Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein, though an editor’s note contextualizes Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein and the resulting protests on campus.
“We call upon our university’s Administration to recognize that such legal advocacy in service of constitutional principles is not only fully consistent with Sullivan’s roles of law professor and dean of an undergraduate house, but one of the many possible models that resident deans can provide in teaching, mentoring, and advising students,” the letter reads.
On Jan. 23, the New York Post first reported that Sullivan would be joining Weinstein’s legal team as the film producer faces five criminal charges in a Manhattan sexual abuse case, stemming from allegations that he raped a woman and forcibly performed oral sex on another.
Two days after the Post story, Sullivan emailed Winthrop House residents defending his decision to represent Weinstein, saying that defense attorneys have a duty to represent the “unpopular defendant.” Days later, Sullivan and co-Faculty Dean Stephanie R. Robinson followed up with another missive — this time outlining “processes” that would be in place going forward, including the appointment of Resident Dean Linda D.M. Chavers as the “point person” for issues pertaining to sexual assault.
In the weeks following Sullivan’s announcement, he has faced sharp criticism from students and faculty alike. More than 50 students toting signs that read “Do Your Job” and “Remove Sullivan” protested outside Massachusetts Hall on Feb. 11, calling for the College to remove Sullivan from his Faculty Dean position. That same day, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay called his response to students’ concerns “insufficient” in an interview with The Crimson.
On Feb. 25, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced that former Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 would head a “climate review” of Winthrop House in the wake of student criticism.
In addition to voicing support for Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein, the law professors’ letter also criticized any potential University pressure on Sullivan to resign.
“We view any pressure by Harvard’s administration for him to resign as Faculty Dean of Winthrop, because of his representation or speaking on behalf of clients, as inconsistent with the University’s commitment to the freedom to defend ideas, however unpopular,” the letter reads.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment.
Halley said she was motivated to circulate the letter by her disappointment with the University’s response to student criticism. She said she felt that the climate review, specifically, was “shocking in its ridiculousness.”
“The question should not be ‘can Ronald Sullivan continue as House Dean,’ it’s how, as a great university, can we convene a discussion about strongly contested matters like the ones involved here,” Halley said. “They’ve just shied away from their role as academic leaders.”
Bartholet wrote in an email that she was also concerned with Harvard’s response, especially in light of Sullivan’s history of “representation of victims of criminal and social injustice.” Sullivan has represented high-profile defendants in the past including former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in his double murder trial and the family of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014.
“They just can’t accept being associated in any way with the defense of those accused of sexual harassment,” Bartholet wrote of Harvard’s administration.
Halley said she hopes the letter will prompt readers to consider the professors’ perspective.
“For his career to be besmirched by a decision that he’s not fit to be the dean of Winthrop House — it would be such a miscarriage,” Halley said. “I truly hope that’s not the outcome of this process.”
—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.