13 May 2019

Harvard law professors to lose positions

First African-American faculty deans in Harvard's history lose house positions, one being Harvard law dean representing Harvey Weinstein.


Winthrop faculty dean Ronald S Sullivan Jr, along with arts and sciences dean Stephanie R Robinson, will end his term on June 30 after Harvard refused to renew appointment. John Winthrop House is one of twelve undergraduate residential Houses at Harvard University, and has been mired in controversy for some months over a review of the sexual climate on campus.


Professor Sullivan is the Harvard Law School professor who announced he would be part of the team representing film producer Harvey Weinstein. The decision in January divided the campus, with students, faculty, and administrators critical of Professor Sullivan’s decision and his response to student concerns, calling on him to step down from his faculty dean position.  Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, announced he had decided to remove Professor Sullivan and Professor Robinson because the environment in Winthrop is “untenable.” Dean Khurana wrote, “The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the House.” He also called the situation “regrettable,” adding that he admires many of the two academic's accomplishments.

“Racist overtones”

Ahead of the Harvard announcement, Professor Sullivan, known for his work overturning wrongful convictions, told the judge overseeing the case that he would withdraw from Mr Weinstein’s team. He had earlier written an email to students defending the need to represent “unpopular defendants.” The law faculty supported Professor Sullivan with a petition stating, “We the 52 undersigned members of the Harvard Law School faculty support our colleague Ronald S. Sullivan Jr’s dedication to the professional tradition of providing representation to people accused of crimes and other misconduct, including to those who are reviled. For the past 10 years while serving as faculty dean of Winthrop House, professor Sullivan has represented alleged victims of sexual assault as well as people accused of sexual assault, murder, and terrorism.” Both academics were the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history. They will retain their faculty positions. The Harvard Black Law Students Association also released a statement last month that the Harvard’s response to the student outcry had “racist undertones” and contested arguments that attorneys should not represent people accused of sexual assault and rape. BLSA also affirmed its support for survivors of sexual violence and praised Sullivan’s previous work as a defense attorney.


The two academics told The New York Times that they were “surprised and dismayed” by the decision, writing in a statement “We believed the discussions we were having with high level University representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks.” They added, “We will now take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options” and are “sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time.”

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