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  • Harvard’s First African-American Faculty Dean Let Go Amid Harvey Weinstein Controversy

    Following months of protest and inquiry, Harvard University announced that it will not renew the appointments of Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a high-profile defense lawyer who had joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal team, and Stephanie R. Robinson, Sullivan’s wife, as faculty deans of Winthrop House, an undergraduate residential college.

    The couple – Harvard’s first African-American faculty deans – have faced forceful backlash since Sullivan joined Weinstein’s defense team in January. Those in protest felt that Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein disqualified him from filling a role of support and mentorship for students.

    Previously, Sullivan was the target of graffiti appearing on university buildings, with one questioning which “side” of the issue he was on. There was also a student sit-in and a lawsuit after an altercation between one protest leader and two Winthrop House staff members who were viewed as supporting Sullivan.

    Earlier this May, after completing a “climate review” of Winthrop House, the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, informed students and staff that Sullivan and Robinson would not continue as faculty deans after their terms end on June 30. In his email, Khurana stated that, despite efforts to improve the climate, “a number of considerations” led him to conclude that the situation was untenable.

    Khurana’s email also noted concerns about “the noticeable lack of faculty presence during critical moments,” and there were reports that some current and former staff members experienced a hostile and suspicious work environment under Sullivan and Robinson.

    On the other hand, Sullivan, who before the announcement informed the judge overseeing the case that he would withdraw from Weinstein’s legal team, and Robinson allegedly felt discussions with university representatives were progressing in a positive manner and were optimistic about a resolution. “[B]ut Harvard unilaterally ended those talks,” said the couple in a statement given days after Khurana’s email.

    Sullivan is no stranger to representing controversial figures. He previously represented Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots player, when he was tried for double murder, and the family of Usaamah Rahim, a terrorist suspect who allegedly planned to kill Boston law enforcement officers.

    Nor is he new to social justice. In fact, he specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.  In New Orleans, he helped overhaul the legal defense system for the underprivileged that led to the release of thousands of wrongly-incarcerated inmates, and in 2014, he worked with Brooklyn District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, to form a conviction review unit that identifies and exonerates wrongly convicted individuals.  The design has been implemented nationwide.  In 2017, conviction integrity units exonerated 80 wrongly-accused people, greater than half of all exonerations that year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.  Additionally, Sullivan represented the family of Michael Brown, a man killed by Missouri police, in their wrongful-death suit against the City of Ferguson, which reportedly led to a $1.5 million settlement.

    In any event, Sullivan, who acknowledged the “tension between protecting the rights of those criminally accused and validating the experience of those who are survivors of sexual violence,” emphasized that his representation of Weinstein did not denote his personal views on the matter.

    Not all in the Harvard community opposed Sullivan’s role as dean. Prior to Khurana’s announcement, 52 Harvard Law School professors signed a letter in support, saying Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein was fully consistent with his roles as a law professor and faculty dean, and that they were against any pressure the university put on him to resign.

    Though satisfied with Khurana’s decision, even some protest leaders were surprised that the university acted so quickly. One protest organizer noted that she was “completely gobsmacked, but in the best way” and was proud of the school “for finally choosing to do the right thing.”

    The Harvard Black Law Students Association feel Sullivan’s race played a role in the decision to conduct the climate review and provided a statement criticizing “the racist undertones evidenced by the disproportionate response to this issue by the university.” Sullivan himself also suggested race influenced the review.  “It is not lost on me that I’m the first African-American to hold this position,” he told the New York Times earlier this year.  “Never in the history of the faculty dean position has the dean been subjected to a ‘climate review’ in the middle of some controversy.”

    Though the two will retain their positions at the law school (Sullivan is the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and the director of the Criminal Justice Institute, and Robinson is a Lecturer on Law), the situation is unresolved; Sullivan and Robinson stated that they are now taking time to process Harvard’s decision and to consider their options.

    If you have any questions or concerns regarding employment or education related issues, please contact James G. Ryan at JRyan@CullenandDykman.com or at (516) 357 – 3750.

    Thank you to Steven Cecere, a summer associate at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for his assistance with this blog post.