Conor Friedersdorf: In defense of Harvey Weinstein’s Harvard lawyer
Sullivan was verbally abused, and the residence where his family lives was vandalized with graffiti. A survivor of sexual assault whom Sullivan helped in the past spoke out to The Boston Globe in his defense, as did many of his colleagues at Harvard Law when I contacted them for an article I wrote on the matter.
Sullivan’s colleague Jeannie Suk Gersen was especially prescient when writing in The New Yorker about the controversy:
On the same day as the vandalism, Harvard announced that, in response to “concerns about the impact of this decision on the support that students can expect to receive in the Winthrop community,” the College would undertake a “climate review,” consisting of surveys and interviews of students, after which it would “take actions, as appropriate.” The students were sent a questionnaire asking whether they find Winthrop House “sexist” or “non-sexist,” and “hostile” or “friendly,” among other things. Presumably, if Harvard learns that the “climate” requires it, Sullivan could be fired as dean.
That’s what happened on Saturday: A Harvard administrator announced that Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, would not continue as faculty deans.
The reasons offered were vague and euphemistic.
“Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House,” wrote Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College. “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. I have concluded that the situation in the House is untenable.”
Sullivan remains a law professor.
Outsiders can’t know to what degree representing Weinstein inspired the ouster, and to what degree longtime critics of the faculty dean, such as the ones alluded to in a Harvard Crimson story attacking his performance, exploited unhappiness about Weinstein to accomplish a long-hoped-for removal.
Read: When does the right to an attorney kick in?
Either way, Harvard administrators were warned about the unavoidable conflict between upholding an important civic norm––that legal representation for even the most reviled is a service to the community, not a transgression against it—and giving in to the demands of the undergraduates most aggrieved by their faculty dean’s choice of clients. And rather than infer a responsibility of the extremely privileged to uphold civic norms for the benefit of those in society who most need them, this institution, which purports to educate future leaders, chose to prioritize transient discomfort felt by its most aggrieved students.
On Twitter, an indigent-defense lawyer, James Zeigler, discussed this apparent tradeoff with a law professor, Vida B. Johnson. Here’s the core of their exchange:
Zeigler: … I don’t think Harvard is necessarily wrong for pushing Sullivan out of this post.
Johnson: You are saying then that defense attorney professors can’t be deans (and should have fewer interactions with students) because of the clients they represent? I disagree. I have a hard time accepting that race didn’t play a role here on both the student and decision-makers’ side.
Zeigler: I’m saying that in this particular situation, where a dean volunteered to take a high profile case involving allegations that directly implicate the issues he might be called to confront as dean, and students actually feel uncomfortable with this, the two jobs may be in conflict. Race may have played a role, and reports of the student response to his decision to rep Weinstein may be skewed or exaggerated. I’m not saying he couldn’t do the job.
I’m saying that protecting norms around the right to counsel, esp where someone volunteered to rep a wealthy defendant, does not justify keeping someone in a position like this if students are uncomfortable, even if that discomfort is arguably unenlightened or misplaced.
But protecting the norms around the right to counsel is orders of magnitude more important than the “unenlightened or misplaced” discomfort of some Harvard undergraduates––discomfort rooted in difficulty tolerating moral difference, not in having to report sexual assault to Sullivan, as some have erroneously suggested. In fact, Sullivan long ago appointed Linda D. M. Chavers, a resident dean, to serve as his house’s “point person” for sexual-assault issues. (Moreover, Harvard employs dozens of people to whom any student in need could report sexual misconduct.)