Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced that he will not renew Winthrop Faculty Deans Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie R. Robinson after their term ends on June 30 in an email to House affiliates on May 11.
Ronald Sullivan is a lawyer and teacher/professor at Harvard University.
Mr. Sullivan, with his wife, Stephanie Robinson, has also served for a decade as the faculty dean of Winthrop House, an undergraduate dormitory where some 400 students live. He is the first Afro-American to occupy such a position.
In January 2019, Sullivan announced he had accepted to join the legal team defending Harvey Weinstein. This announcement resulted in a wave of protests by students at Winthrop House, apparently not the first conflict that Sullivan has been involved in over cases touching on sexual abuse in which he has been involved as a lawyer.
Apparently, Rakesh Khurana has given into this student protest, despite 52 Harvard Law School colleagues warning against any such measure. The students have protested, inter alia, against Sullivan’s criticism of Harvard’s handling of Title IX proceedings brought against Freyer about which he said: “this process has been deeply flawed and deeply unfair. … It shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce.”
Both representing Weinstein and this assertion of witness coaching led students to believe that these actions are in conflict with his role as Dean.
There has been considerable press echo. I will quote Professor Steven Pinker’s statement here.
I appreciate the complexity of any contested administrative decision, and know that there may be facts behind it that I’m not privy to. Still, I must register my dismay at the recent announcement of the decision not to renew Ron Sullivan’s appointment as Dean at Winthrop House.
The decision, of course, was made in the wake of highly publicized protests over his decision to serve as legal counsel to Harvey Weinstein. Even if the decision was based instead on Sullivan’s performance in his role of Dean, the timing of the decision, together the fact that the public announcement did not make it clear that Harvard was not punishing him for his unpopular professional activities, conveys the impression to the wider world that Harvard caved in to pressure from immature students and endorsed the notion that justice consists in joining a mob against an unpopular villain rather than an impartial system in which the accused has the right to a vigorous defense.
If our students claim to “feel unsafe” under the leadership of an eminent defense attorney who takes on unpopular clients, then we have failed to educate them on how the justice system in a liberal democracy works. We should use this as a teachable moment, rather than indulging juvenile reactions. Whether or not assuaging noisy students and acceding to a shaming mob was the motivation for the decision, that is the public perception.
As a public figure who interacts with many intelligent non-academics from diverse backgrounds and political orientations, I am frequently challenged on the integrity of the academy. “Why should we trust what academics say on climate change, or vaccine safety, or gun control?” they ask; “Everyone knows that universities are echo chambers of political correctness, with no commitment to impartiality or principle.” Incidents like this undermine the credibility of the academy in an age in which we must safeguard it more assiduously than ever.