When a frenzied mob chanting, “Winthrop!” burst through my door on Housing Day, I should have been thrilled. After all, Winthrop House was the last House to be renovated before Lowell House. It’s close to the Yard and clean, without the roaches endemic to Eliot and Kirkland Houses. It’s not Mather House. In terms of living spaces, Winthrop is one of the most desirable Houses. And, to be fair, I was quite pleased not to be placed in the Quad. But I also felt a looming dread because of Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., and his decision to defend former film producer Harvey Weinstein against numerous charges of sexual assault and misconduct.
My name is Phoebe, and I am a survivor of sexual assault.
My story is similar to many others. I was raped in September after a party, three weeks after first arriving on campus. I spoke to the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and the Title IX Office. I filed for a No-Contact order against my rapist and received one.
But Harvard failed me in the month following my assault. The morning after I was raped, I went to University Health Services. They gave me emergency birth control but could not provide me a rape kit there; now I have no physical evidence that I was assaulted. And when I spoke to the Title IX Office, I learned that a formal investigation, an emotionally exhausting process in itself, could stretch for months. I walked away without filing for one, desperate to restore some measure of normalcy to my life and bring an end to a terrible experience that had already gone on for long enough.
After half a year, I began to feel safe again. I am changed, but I persist. But now I am afraid. In joining Weinstein’s legal defense team, I believe Sullivan has signaled to students that he does not support survivors of sexual assault. He is actively working as Weinstein’s lawyer to discredit witnesses who have come forward, and, in doing so, discouraging others from telling their stories. Even setting aside his work on the case, which could be explained as a desire to uphold the constitutional rights of all defendants, there are other indicators suggesting his predisposition against survivors. Sullivan has accused witnesses testifying against Harvard Economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., who is currently under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment, of being coached. Sullivan stated that the process through which Harvard is investigating “shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce.” I fear he would accuse me of lying as well.
Supporters of Sullivan have defended his work as a matter of academic and professional freedom. But, because he is the faculty dean of Winthrop House, Sullivan’s obligations exceed those of the typical Law School professor. As an authority figure, Sullivan sets the tone for the community. He has a duty to create a climate where all students feel safe. I do not feel safe knowing that Sullivan is currently working to discredit those who have come forward against Weinstein and has attempted to discredit those who have come forward against Fryer.
Let me clarify: I do not think that anyone will doubt my account of events. What I fear is that if I tell my story in Winthrop next year, I will be seen as having been just assaulted, but not raped; just wronged, but not violated. I fear that the profound impact sexual violence has had on my life will be dismissed as exaggeration and that my emotions will be dismissed as overreaction. It is hard enough for me to speak about my experience to a community I know accepts my story as truth. But to tell my story without the assurance that people will understand the extent of my pain and trauma? I would rather not speak at all. This is the violent impact of Sullivan’s decision on one survivor of sexual assault, as well as on many others: silence.
I would like to believe that Harvard does not tolerate violence. But in reality, the University is rife with it. Beyond decades of suppressing allegations of sexual misconduct brought by both students and employees across the entire University, the Law School was found in violation of Title IX for its response to sexual violence in 2014. Harvard is also currently embroiled in a battle with the Harvard Graduate Students Union over the latter’s demand for protections against discrimination and sexual harassment, a standard feature of most union contracts, to be included in the agreement between the two parties. The University has repeatedly shown its disinterest in eliminating systemic violence.
I did not open a formal investigation into my sexual assault because I was tired and scared and sick of reliving my trauma. I stayed quiet. But my silence will not protect me, and once more I find myself feeling threatened, expected to live in Winthrop House under the authority of a man who, in the case of representing Weinstein and defending Fryer, has exhibited hostility to survivors of sexual assault. So here is my voice. I am calling for Sullivan to resign from his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House, and, should he refuse, for his removal. I am calling for Harvard to finally address the systemic violence that impacts survivors of sexual assault on campus. I am calling for justice.
Phoebe H. Suh ’22 lives in Weld Hall.