Can a famed law professor serve on the defense team of the nation's highest profile #MeToo case — and also adequately serve the needs of university students under his care?
That is one of the questions at the center of a controversy that's erupted at Harvard University. It involves law professor Ronald Sullivan. He's done some of the nation's most important criminal justice work on behalf of the wrongly incarcerated, and until recently he was also on Harvey Weinstein's defense team. Sullivan was also the faculty head of a Harvard dorm. That is until students demanded his removal. Survivors of sexual assault said they did not feel safe or welcome in the undergraduate Winthrop House under Sullivan's direction.
This month, Harvard announced that Sullivan will not be house dean next year, though he remains on the law school faculty. But why does any of this matter beyond the brick and ivy Corners of one of America's most elite universities? Some of Sullivan's defenders say here's a moment where campus culture and the #MeToo movement may be running headlong into a foundational principle of the American legal system: that everyone, even the most unsavory of clients, deserves a vigorous defense.
"There is no inconsistency between being a faculty dean of a house at Harvard University and, at the same time, being a criminal defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein," Randall Kennedy, professor at Harvard Law School, told On Point's Meghna Chakrabarti.
Kennedy, Remedy Ryan — a sophomore at Harvard University doing a concentration in social studies and women, gender and sexuality — and Boston Globe reporter Stephanie Ebbert joined On Point to discuss.
On the influence and legal legacy of Ronald Sullivan
Ebbert: "He is very influential and very well-regarded, both on Harvard's campus and nationally. We know him locally as part of the team that handled the Aaron Hernandez double-murder trial, and won an acquittal there for the late New England Patriot. He was the first African American faculty dean who was named at Harvard, and he leads a criminal defense project at Harvard. He's seen as very high-profile. In fact, he even represented Rose McGowan, who is one of Harvey Weinstein's fiercest accusers, when she had a drug possession case last year. So he's been in the news before.
Sullivan also represented the family of Michael Brown after Ferguson, and he is credited with having created a system of analysis of cases in New York that led to the release or the freedom of many wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.
On why the case of Ronald Sullivan has struck a chord
Kennedy: "There is no inconsistency between being a faculty dean of a house at Harvard University and, at the same time, being a criminal defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein. The reason why I've gotten so upset about this is because many of the comments coming from some of the dissident students, and some of the comments coming from the Harvard administration, and the overall approach of the Harvard administration, seems to suggest that it is per se disqualifying to be a faculty dean and to represent Harvey Weinstein. And it seems to me that that's profoundly mistaken.
On why these decisions cannot be dictated by feelings
Kennedy: "I think we need to ask ourselves, 'How should we react when students, or for that matter anybody else, say that they feel something?' I mean, just suppose, for instance, that we had students who said that, 'I feel very unsafe or unwelcome because a faculty dean is white or a faculty dean is black or a faculty dean is' — you can you can just fill in the blank. An atheist, a Catholic. The fact of the matter is that people have all sorts of various — they have various identities. Professor Sullivan is a professor. He's also a lawyer. Just suppose professor Sullivan was a surgeon and had operated on Harvey Weinstein. Would they get upset there by saying that you're extending the man's life? I disagree with the way in which the university is actually failing, in my view, to educate the students."
"I disagree with the way in which the university is actually failing, in my view, to educate the students."
On the role of ostracizing and "canceling" public figures in the current political climate
Kennedy: "Let's just fill out the story a bit. In the Boston Globe a while ago, discussing this issue, it was pointed out that there are people who are survivors of harassment and assault who have said, actually, Professor Sullivan was very helpful to them. He was very empathetic, very helpful. Willing to represent them pro bono. I mean, this is not a person without a track record, track record in which he has been extremely helpful to students of all sorts who have gotten into difficulty. And remember, again, my position is that simply serving as the defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein should not in and of itself be disqualifying.
"In my view, part of what's going on here is an anger at him because of a view that he's not going far enough in ostracizing Weinstein. Part of what's going on here is a question of limits on ostracism. And I think that one of the things animating me and other law professors is a notion that, while ostracism is an important and often times good force in society, it can go too far, and if you are going to take it to the extreme of putting pressure on somebody who is simply serving as a defense attorney, if you're going to actually oust that person from their position as a faculty dean, then that's taking ostracism too far."
"I think that having a feeling that your voice isn't going to be heard and that this, that Sullivan's decision, to represent Weinstein was going to negatively affect you, it's a completely legitimate feeling."
On why students felt unsafe in Winthrop House
Ryan: "The situation in Winthrop House this semester was survivors were hurt by Dean Sullivan taking this case and felt like it was insensitive to their needs as students and as survivors who lived in that house. I would say in response to Professor Kennedy that Dean Sullivan isn't just a law school professor. He's in charge of, and lives in, an undergraduate dorm with 400 students who don't choose to be in that house, were randomly assigned at a school where rates of sexual assault and harassment are extremely high. And so, I think that having a feeling that your voice isn't going to be heard and that this, that Sullivan's decision, to represent Weinstein was going to negatively affect you, it's a completely legitimate feeling.
"I don't think that this isn't about you know a bunch of students turning on a professor. This isn't about academic freedom being attacked. This is about what was happening in a house, very specifically. What actually happened was that students were attacked and were criticized, and we were told that we didn't know anything about the law, and that the student activism that was happening on the campus was illegitimate, and that the reporting of the Crimson was wrong. And so I think that what actually happened was that there was an attack on students and on student voices."
On why Sullivan’s removal is about more than Harvey Weinstein
Ryan: "I think that this whole argument of academic freedom is kind of a red herring in this situation. I think it is very specific to how students felt in the house and also Dean Sullivan's statements about sexual assault and the #MeToo Movement in general — his comments about Roland Fryer, in which he said it shows what the current #MeToo movement, some blood in the water and some good coaching of witnesses can produce, in response to a Harvard Title IX case in which women had come out about harassment from a specific professor. I think his taking Weinstein’s case in combination with statement about Harvard's Title IX processes made students feel like they couldn’t necessarily trust Dean Sullivan in a position as someone who has control over their own Title IX procedures."
"I think that one of the things animating me and other law professors is a notion that, while ostracism is an important and often times good force in society, it can go too far."
On how the protest over Sullivan and Harvard's decision not to retain him as Winthrop House faculty dean resonate in the #MeToo era
Kennedy: "The legal system, the social system, have been sexist, sometimes misogynistic, have been indifferent. All of that is terrible. Now, what do we do in the face of that? We have a person who is accused of a crime, and we need to say that, too, by the way. He is accused of a crime. He has not been tried. At this point he has the presumption of innocence, Harvey Weinstein. He has now sought the legal advice of Ron Sullivan. The question is, what inferences do we make when Ron Sullivan gives to Harvey Weinstein legal advice? What inferences do we make when a lawyer gives legal advice to somebody who is jailed in Guantanamo? Who who is accused of being a terrorist? What inferences do we make when [Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev had someone who was advising him? (By the way, one of Tsarnaev’s attorneys was a law professor.) What inferences do we make when people give legal advice? I think what we say to the students is, 'Let's be careful here. Let's understand distinctions. Let's not allow our emotions to just wash everything else away.'
"Distinctions are important to make. It would be wrong for you to think that simply because Ron Sullivan is giving legal advice to Harvey Weinstein, that Ron Sullivan is embracing everything that Harvey Weinstein’s ever done in his life."
Alex Schroeder and David Marino adapted this interview for the web.