‘With Us or Against Us’: Current, Former Winthrop Affiliates Say Faculty Deans Created a Toxic Environment Stretching Back Years
Hayoung Hwang — Crimson Photographer
When Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. met with House tutors on Jan. 27 to defend his representation of accused sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, House scholar-in-residence Robert E. Proctor made a passing reference to issues from “three years ago.”
The reference may have gone unnoticed by newer staffers, but a couple of tutors at the meeting interpreted it as a warning recalling the ugly history of complaints about leadership and perceived retaliation that have dogged Winthrop for years.
Since Sullivan announced he would represent Weinstein, scores of Harvard affiliates and outside commentators have debated the impact of his decision on students. Staff, though, have largely remained silent.
Shortly after Sullivan announced his decision to represent Weinstein, he and his wife and co-faculty dean Stephanie R. Robinson assembled House staff for the Jan. 27 meeting. During the meeting, he openly berated then-Winthrop tutor Katie B. Kohn, accusing her of organizing students against him and Robinson, and read from a prepared statement defending his representation of Weinstein, according to Kohn and Winthrop tutor Priya Shanmugam, who both attended the meeting.
Kohn wrote in an emailed statement that some tutors took Proctor’s reference to issues from three years prior to be a “clear threat.”
She said she understood Proctor to be referring to Winthrop’s history of management problems and alleged retaliation against tutors that Sullivan and Robinson deemed insufficiently supportive of them.
The problems included a revolving door of House Administrators, threats to push out resident tutors Sullivan and Robinson perceived as disloyal, and repeated meetings with College administrators about concerns with the faculty deans’ leadership. At one point in 2016, more than half of the Winthrop resident tutor staff made a pact to leave the House in protest, though they ultimately stayed.
“During our decade of service we have been, and remain, committed to creating a home for all students in Winthrop House,” Sullivan wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “Our commitment extends to creating an appropriate environment for the House’s tutors and staff.”
In his statement, Sullivan denied current and former Winthrop staff members’ characterizations of years of events in the House.
“In any event, the matters you raise did not occur as you suggest,” he wrote. “To the extent that you are repeating the suppositions and speculations of others, they are misinformed or mistaken.” He did not, however, identify which allegations he disputed.
Harvard charges faculty deans with creating a home for students beyond that of a dorm. For three out of their four years at the College, most students eat, sleep, and socialize in their house. “The Houses serve as the foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College,” according to the Dean of Students Office’s website.
But seven current and former Winthrop staff, including tutors, told The Crimson in interviews conducted over the past three months that they experienced a culture of fear while they worked or lived in the House — fear of being chastised in front of their colleagues, fear of damage to their career prospects, and fear of being fired.
This account is based on interviews with 14 people with direct knowledge of the culture of Winthrop House. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from Sullivan and Robinson, both of whom are major figures in the legal profession.
Appointed as the first African American faculty deans at the College in 2009, Sullivan and Robinson both teach at Harvard Law School, where Sullivan also serves as the director of the Criminal Justice Institute. Aside from Weinstein, Sullivan has taken on other high-profile clients including former New England Patriots tight-end Aaron Hernandez in his 2017 double murder trial and the family of Michael Brown, a black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in 2014. Robinson served as chief counsel to the late United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54.
Eleven current and former staff members endorsed a statement sent to The Crimson Thursday stating they experienced “a climate of hostility and suspicion” while working for Sullivan and Robinson.
“During our time as tutors at Winthrop House, we experienced a workplace climate of hostility and suspicion generated by the Faculty Deans, Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson,” the statement reads. “Although we recognize that not all tutors shared our experience, we do believe that many tutors and staff members were subject to improper and antagonistic behavior by the Faculty Deans.”
Sullivan wrote in his statement that he and Robinson cannot comment on personnel affairs.
“You have asked us to comment on personnel and other private matters. As you know, we are not at liberty to discuss personnel matters by law and by College policy,” Sullivan wrote. “That said, regardless of these constraints, we would not discuss individuals’ personal or personnel matters with anyone including tutors, staff, or students.”
Many of the staffers also alleged that Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Dean for Administration Sheila C. Thimba, and former Dean of Students Stephen Lassonde have also been aware of issues within Winthrop’s walls for several years and did not adequately address what more than a dozen current and former Winthrop students and staff deemed a toxic climate.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment for this story on behalf of Khurana and Thimba. Lassonde also declined to comment on Winthrop House. Proctor did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2016, more than a dozen Winthrop tutors, students, and staff have brought concerns about Sullivan and Robinson to College administrators in meetings, emails, and reports. Many of them said they believe administrators failed to protect them.
Several former staff members in Winthrop — including Kohn and former tutor and interim resident dean Kip C. Richardson — said they had a very positive experience working with Sullivan and Robinson during the first several years of their tenure as faculty deans.
They said that changed in early 2016.
In the span of three months, a House staffer stepped down allegedly under pressure from Sullivan and Robinson, three tutors faced threats of dismissal, and 13 tutors threatened to quit in protest.
When discussing the challenges staff faced while working for Sullivan and Robinson, every current and former Winthrop affiliate interviewed for this article referenced former House staffer Heather S. Grant.
In 2015, Grant transitioned from working as the Winthrop dining hall manager — a position she had held since 2009 — to the House Administrator position.
Grant was a central part of Winthrop House, according to Richardson. A 2016 report sent to Khurana by former Winthrop Undergraduate Council representative Daniel R. Levine ’17 stated that Grant was “often touted by students as one of the house’s greatest assets.”
As a House Administrator, Grant was responsible for managing students’ rooming assignments, special events, and the House’s budget. Several months into her tenure, she began bringing concerns about Sullivan and Robinson to College administrators, according to six former House staff. They said they often saw her working late into the night performing tasks they believed were for the personal benefit of the faculty deans.
Eight former students and staff members with direct knowledge of the situation said they believe Sullivan and Robinson retaliated against Grant because she brought concerns about them to administrators in University Hall.
Grant left Winthrop over winter break that year, and on Jan. 4, 2016, Sullivan and Robinson sent an email to the House announcing that she was “pursuing other opportunities at Harvard College.”
Grant did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Levine wrote in his report that several students told him they were confused about Grant’s abrupt departure. Kohn and Richardson said students also came to them with similar questions.
Sullivan and Robinson sent one more email about Grant to tutors on Jan. 11, 2016.
“As we stated in our earlier communication, “Heather is pursuing other opportunities at Harvard College,”” the email read. “As such, we would expect you to say something to that effect. Of course, you should not engage in speculation, rumors, gossip, or innuendo.”
Grant is one of several House Administrators who left Winthrop after a short stint at the House.
In the decade since Sullivan and Robinson became faculty deans of Winthrop, the 11 other upperclassmen houses have had, on average, one or two House Administrators. From 2010 to 2018, three houses had one House Administrator and five had two. In 2018, the average tenure of a non-Winthrop House Administrator was 9.45 years.
In that period, Winthrop House had nine. Winthrop’s current House Administrator, its tenth under Sullivan and Robinson, took office just six weeks ago, on March 26.
Eleven current and former Winthrop staff members said they believe Sullivan and Robinson created a challenging environment that led to the high turnover of House Administrators.
Four former Winthrop staff members said they saw House Administrators cry while on the job sometimes after being told to do things they believed fell out of their purview, including personal errands and tasks for the faculty deans such as grocery shopping.
Kohn, who left the House in March, wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that the three permanent House Administrators she overlapped with all faced “difficulties” while working for Sullivan and Robinson.
“I don't feel comfortable speaking on their behalf over their reasons for departing or their experiences while they were still in that office, but I do think I can say that their experiences, as they reported them, were very consistent with one another,” Kohn wrote. “They’re all very different people in terms of professional and personal backgrounds, but they all seemed to have similar experiences in that office.”
Also in the spring of 2016, Proctor told several tutors he wanted to dismiss three of them over the summer, according to several former staffers. They added that Sullivan and Robinson also threatened to terminate resident tutor Kera C. Street’s contract after students allegedly brought up concerns related to her behavior at House events.
Street wrote in an email at the time that Sullivan and Robinson told her on Feb. 1, 2016 they would not renew her contract.
“Last Monday, after tutor meeting, Ron and Stephanie spoke with me in the SCR to inform me that my contract would not be renewed after the end of this term,” Street wrote. “They said that they recently received oral complaints from students about my conduct, and drunk and ‘sloppy’ behavior at House events.”
Street did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Several former Winthrop staff members said they believed the allegations against her were unfounded.
Later in February 2016, eight resident tutors went to College administrators with concerns that Street would leave Winthrop, according to Richardson, Kohn, and several other former staff members. They said they were concerned, in part, that Sullivan and Robinson wanted Street to leave the House because they perceived her as being disloyal.
Two former House staff members said administrators informed Sullivan and Robinson that tutors had raised concerns about them.
Richardson and Kohn said 13 tutors — more than half of the 2015-2016 tutor roster — were prepared to quit if Street left because they believed there was no cause for termination.
Street’s contract was eventually renewed. She left Winthrop in 2017.
During the period following the tutors’ plan to resign, the dynamic between the faculty deans and the tutors permanently shifted, according to former staff and students. They said they increasingly felt isolated and were afraid of inadvertently angering Sullivan and Robinson.
Prior to 2016, tutors largely ran the first round of the tutor hiring process, selecting a group for the faculty deans to interview from the general pool of applicants, according to Kohn and Richardson. In the aftermath of the threats to Street, Sullivan and Robinson modified Winthrop’s tutor hiring process; the tutors who raised concerns were no longer involved in hiring.
In several other Harvard houses, tutors and undergraduates oversee the majority of the tutor hiring process.
Since the spring of 2016, Proctor has served as the point person for Winthrop’s tutor hiring. Proctor has been employed by the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, which Sullivan directs, since 2011.
In February 2016, Proctor oversaw the first round of tutor hiring interviews without the tutor staff’s knowledge, according to an email to Winthrop resident tutors from Sullivan and Robinson.
“We have truncated what has been the process we have employed in years past. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly,” they wrote. “Our Scholar-in-Residence, Robert Proctor, has reviewed all the resumes and conducted pre-interviews.”
Five former staff members said they believe Sullivan and Robinson changed the tutor hiring process because they did not want the tutors who brought concerns about Street to College administrators to play a role in hiring.
Several current and former staff members also spoke about a split between those deemed as loyal and disloyal to Sullivan and Robinson. Kohn wrote in her email to The Crimson that she believes the deans perpetuated a “with us or against us” mentality among House staff.
“The result is a generally perceived sense amongst staff that the Faculty Deans, to some extent, deliberate along the lines of a ‘with us or against us’ view of staff in which there is little to no room for forms of actual respect, gratitude, professionalism or deference so long as a staff member is deemed, in advance, as having been ‘disloyal’ or untrustworthy of some kind,” Kohn wrote.
The divide between people perceived as loyal and disloyal extended to undergraduates, according to Charlie G. Alvers ’17, Madeleine D. Woods ’19, and two other former Winthrop students.
“Whenever you would say something that necessarily didn't go along with what they thought, [loyal tutors] would drop subtle hints about Faculty Dean Sullivan’s importance in the Law School, Faculty Dean Sullivan's importance in the House, the power he held and how you shouldn't necessarily speak out against people, that you don't know everything that's happening,” Alvers said.
“There was always a sort of threatening environment around speaking up about anything,” he added.
In addition to serving as the center of undergraduate life, Harvard houses can play a role in students’ post-graduation prospects. Students applying to medical school must go through their House’s pre-medical committee, for example.
The report Levine sent to Khurana in 2016 cited a 2015 Crimson House Life survey that asked upperclassmen which House they would choose if given the chance. Winthrop placed last among the Houses, picked by one percent of respondents.
Alvers added that he thinks many students were at least somewhat aware of challenges in the House during the 2015-2016 academic year.
“I think there were also certain groups of people that knew about it, but didn’t want to address it or didn’t want to think about it, didn't want to talk about it,” he said. “Just because it’s very discongruent from the ideal housing environment that we keep being told about at Harvard, the House that we want to have.”
Woods said she recently became aware of the 2016 events that took place in the House. She added that she thinks the College’s muted response at the time has left Winthrop students vulnerable to a toxic culture.
“We're all obviously terrified, if staff people can be treated this way,” she said. “Even though we were given this idea that, ‘Oh, undergrads have this kind of buffer,’ that seems to be erased.”
Previous issues with Sullivan and Robinson’s tenure as faculty deans resurfaced this semester following Sullivan’s response to student concerns about his decision to represent Weinstein.
Since Sullivan’s January announcement that he would join Weinstein’s legal team, students have called for him to step down as faculty dean in protests, emails, and blog posts. Campus discussions have centered both around Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein and his response to student concerns. On Jan. 25, he sent an email to Winthrop residents defending his decision.
“I encourage anyone with questions and/or concerns to come and talk,” Sullivan wrote. “Winthrop has been and will remain a space that welcomes all points of view.”
“To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be,” Sullivan added.
Kohn replied to Sullivan’s email the next day and copied the resident tutor staff. Her message raised questions about the potential negative effects of Sullivan’s response on students.
“With all due respect, I am concerned that here, and in spite of your expertise in other matters, you may be severely missing the mark,” Kohn wrote. “I am concerned that your recent message has already and will continue to do future damage.”
Robinson then replied to the tutor staff criticizing Kohn for responding in a “disagreeable manner.”
“I find it truly unfortunate that you sent this very lengthy email in response to Ron’s invitation for anyone with concerns or complaints to simply talk to him. He invited conversation about all things related to his representation and it feels to me that you wanted to see the absolute worst read on this communication,” Robinson wrote. “You disagree with Ron and have responded in what feels like a disagreeable manner.”
Sullivan then sent another email to just Kohn, asking her to meet with him and Robinson privately.
Though Sullivan’s email was in response to Kohn’s message about Weinstein, Sullivan wrote that he and Robinson did not intend to discuss that email. Instead, the proposed meeting concerned her performance as a tutor more broadly.
“We still need a day and time from you,” Sullivan wrote in an email to Kohn. “We would like to discuss your tutoring. We do not intend to discuss your email.”
Kohn, Sullivan, and Robinson did not meet privately after Kohn replied that she would not say anything in person that she did not write in her initial email. Instead, Sullivan and Robinson scheduled the all-tutor meeting where Proctor referenced the 2016 events.
At the Jan. 27 meeting, Sullivan read a prepared statement criticizing Kohn. He alleged that she incited students against him on social media. Kohn denies the charge, writing in her emailed statement to The Crimson that she had posted a link to a story about his representation without commentary.
“Rob Proctor made a point to also address me directly before the staff, sharing his dismay at the ‘ingratitude’ I had shown ‘Harvard's first black faculty deans,’ adding that, three years ago, he had forcefully advocated for my dismissal and that the only reason I was still at Winthrop was because the Faculty Deans disagreed,” Kohn wrote in her statement.
“Both Sullivan and Robinson made several off the cuff and openly hostile remarks claiming that I had been disrespectful, viciously maligned, or attacked them in my choices as tutor,” she added.
Shanmugam, a tutor also present at the meeting, confirmed Kohn’s account.
A month later, Khurana announced a “climate review” of Winthrop. The review, led by former Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, gave House affiliates the option to meet with Dingman and fill out a survey distributed March 5.
Tensions at Winthrop House have continued to rise. Last week, 178 undergraduates filled Winthrop’s dining hall as part of a sit-in to “reclaim” the house. Their protest came amid Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein, his response to the announcement, and an ongoing lawsuit brought by Winthrop tutors Carl L. Miller and Valencia Miller against Eliot Faculty Dean Gail A. O’Keefe.
The suit came after an April 3 incident in the Winthrop dining hall where Eliot resident Danu A.K. Mudannayake ’20 and Carl Miller filed conflicting police reports against each other after a confrontation. Following the incident, the Millers sued O’Keefe for defamation based in part on comments she wrote in an email sent to Eliot affiliates defending Mudannayake, a Crimson design editor, and calling the Millers “unprofessional.”
Khurana has repeatedly declined to comment on the Millers’ suit and other developments in Winthrop House, citing the ongoing review.
Kohn wrote that she met with both Dingman and Khurana this semester to raise concerns about how Sullivan handled questions surrounding his representation. She wrote that Khurana cited some affiliates’ praise of Sullivan and Robinson in response to her account of the Jan. 27 meeting.
“When I spoke with Dean Khurana about [the meeting] including what I perceived to be its defamatory and retaliatory aspects, as well as detrimental effect on the staff and climate at large, his response redirected my account away from the issue at hand,” she wrote.
“[He claimed] that as recently as that same week, he heard from other folks that the Winthrop Faculty Deans were ‘the best faculty deans ever,’ adding: ‘So you have to understand, I hear conflicting reports.’”