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Harvard Was Right to Fire Ron Sullivan

The ex-lawyer for Harvey Weinstein isn't a victim of political correctness or #MeToo excess. He put his professional brand above his students' welfare.

Harvey Weinstein (l) with lawyer Ron Sullivan in January. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

When Harvard Law School professor Ron Sullivan lost his esteemed position as faculty dean of Winthrop House last weekend, and withdrew from Harvey Weinstein’s defense team, he secured a new one in the process: poster child in the war against campus political correctness. Throughout this week, prominent pundit-lawyers and right-of-center journalists have mourned Sullivan’s fate as though American jurisprudence itself had been critically wounded.

“Infuriating: Harvard unilaterally surrenders to the student mob,” tweeted Reason’s Robby Soave, calling it “an evil decision” to oust Sullivan “for the crime of thinking Harvey Weinstein deserves good legal representation (a foundational principle of Enlightened justice).” The school is “teaching Harvard students that they should never represented [sic] unpopular defendants,” wrote Glenn Greenwald. “The new McCarthyism comes to Harvard,” declared Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at the law school, adding that the decision “may be the worst violation of academic freedom during my 55 year association with Harvard.” And his colleague, Laurence Tribe, said he could not recall a “worse” blunder in his 50 years as a professor there.

In addition to such hyperbole, Harvard’s decision not to renew Sullivan’s deanship has inspired fantastic leaps of logic. “The administration,” Soave wrote in an essay, “has endorsed the ridiculous notion that serving as legal counsel for a person accused of sexual misconduct is itself a form of sexual misconduct, or at the very least contributes to sexual harassment on campus.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, meanwhile, argued that the “decision may deter ambitious young lawyers from undertaking the defense of any potentially controversial client, including indigent men who stand accused of rape or sexual assault. That raises the odds of wrongful convictions, especially among the poor.”

At best, these defenses of Sullivan reflect a lack of understanding of daily life for the university’s undergraduates, including the role of faculty deans. At worst, they reflect the impulse to push aside the serious issues brought to light by #MeToo, chalking them up to a generation of snowflakes.

Harvard students leading the campaign to remove Sullivan as Winthrop faculty dean have not suggested that the professor himself is guilty of sexual misconduct, or that Weinstein is not entitled to legal representation. They have mainly argued that the professor is embracing public positions that make it impossible to carry out his obligations as dean of one of Harvard’s twelve undergraduate houses. Sullivan, who remains a tenured law professor, is not a victim of political correctness. He’s a self-interested public figure who has privileged his professional and academic brand over the welfare of the students he was appointed to protect.

Impugning a professor—not to mention an accomplished defender of the wrongfully convicted, as Shaun King noted—is not something I undertake lightly. I’m a Harvard graduate who’s also skeptical of the school, and I got my start in libertarian public policy. I worry about much of the political correctness on today’s college campuses. (I read Reason daily!) As an undergraduate columnist for the The Harvard Crimson in the aughts, I frequently took issue with what I perceived as dubious student demands, arguing they were reflective of a move toward paternalism or incompatible with an atmosphere of free and rigorous debate.

Yet, looking back on my time in college, I realize I often overlooked—worse still, denied—the experience of vulnerable students, especially women who find themselves at the mercy of the system after being sexually assaulted or harassed. Perhaps this is because I graduated from college a decade ago, before the #MeToo movement had created the space necessary for women to tell their stories—and actually be heard. Perhaps it’s also because I was a self-involved young person who was fortunate enough in college not to have any traumatic encounters with members of the opposite sex.

Faculty deans are at the center of student life. Harvard undergraduates live in the same house for all but their freshman year. Students don’t get to pick which house they’re in, and they likewise can’t live off-campus. Faculty deans live on the same house grounds as students. They eat many of their meals with undergrads and host them at their apartments. They’re also tasked with advocating on students’ behalf on academic, medical, and personal issues. Women on campus reasonably wondered how, as one student wrote in the Crimson, they could be “expected to live in Winthrop House under the authority of a man who … has exhibited hostility to survivors of sexual assault.”

Sullivan’s defenders would argue that women should trust the professor to separate his role in an outside legal case from his role as her faculty dean. But even in the context of alleged sexual harassment in his own university community, Sullivan has openly displayed disdain for female accusers.

An investigation began earlier this year into economics professor Roland Fryer, a rising star at Harvard and MacArthur Fellow who has been accused of sexual harassment. Though Sullivan denied earlier reports that he is part of Fryer’s defense team, he did not hesitate to dismiss the testimony of the numerous women who’d reported harassment by Fryer. He even implied that the accusers might be part of a larger conspiracy. “It shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce,” he said.

Might reasonable minds disagree on these highly sensitive legal cases, and is it appropriate for the attorney of the accused to mount a vigorous defense? Of course. But uttered by a person in a role as faculty dean, which entails protecting vulnerable students from being violated and vindicating their rights when they have been, such comments will not do.

Friedersdorf notes that “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.)” Yet as a resident dean, Chavers herself was both appointed by, and reported to, Sullivan—little comfort to concerned students. But this isn’t just about incidentally protecting women who live in Winthrop House. In a time when Harvard, like so many communities, is collectively processing the suffering of so many women in this post-#MeToo moment, we should expect leaders like Sullivan, who’ve been appointed to facilitate this communal healing and move toward improved social norms to embrace that obligation full-bore. Sullivan has not distinguished himself in this regard.

In the role of faculty dean at Harvard, a lightning rod like Sullivan is wrong for the job. No doubt, there are countless exceptional academics in the nine faculties of Harvard who would not meet this standard of commitment to compassion, making them wrong for the job, too. And Sullivan was not merely wrong for the job as faculty dean because of his decision to represent Weinstein, or because students in Winthrop only learned about it when Page Six broke the news, or because he’s made disturbing comments about would-be victims within Harvard.

He proved himself wrong for the job by the way he reacted when students first learned, in January, of his decision to fight to keep America’s most famous (and quite rich) accused sexual assailant out of jail. Sullivan didn’t just defend his decision; he took aim at undergraduate critics in a way that was intellectually dishonest, if not downright nefarious, condescending to them as if they were too stupid to understand how the criminal justice system works. “It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant [like Weinstein] to receive the same process as everyone else—perhaps even more important,” Sullivan said. “To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”

As a legal scholar, Sullivan knows well that defendants have the right to legal representation in myriad ways, including through court-appointed public defenders. (Sullivan himself has been one.) And why is it “more important” for someone like Weinstein, who has spent decades using lawyers and his wealth to silence his far-less-powerful victims, to get access to good counsel than anyone else? Weinstein is hardly a charity case, as there are plenty of criminal defense attorneys in America who represent the rich and famous (and get rich doing so). Presumably Sullivan, as a prominent legal figure, is asked routinely to represent defendants in newsworthy cases, and declines, thereby robbing those defendants of his sterling counsel. There is no professional or moral duty of a private lawyer to represent anyone who comes knocking.

Even if one thinks none of that all criminal defense work is just part and parcel with due process, there’s no question that Weinstein is not just another criminal defendant. He is the man whose misdeeds were so severe that they set off a movement that has toppled dozens of famous men who were previously untouchable, and countless others in positions of power (including two connected to this magazine). His case represents a tidal change in American culture, as women not only become empowered to speak out against abusive men, but are believed.

Perhaps that’s precisely what appealed to Sullivan about Weinstein’s case: the ultimate opportunity to push back against the supposed excesses of #MeToo.

Ron Sullivan could’ve gone quietly: apologize to students, resign from Winthrop, and focus on his law work. Instead, he chose to prey on liberal sensibilities to further his personal crusade. In his media campaign to drum up support over recent months, he resorted to the sort of rhetoric his new army of defenders loathe.

In an interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner earlier this month, he suggested that he was being targeted because he’s black. At the time, Harvard was taking a survey of the “climate” at Winthrop House to gauge students’ feelings about Sullivan. “It’s absolutely never happened before,” he told Chotiner, “and I do not believe that it would happen again to any non-minority faculty dean.” In truth, a similar investigation occurred just four years ago in a nearby house overseen by a white, conservative professor who first came to Harvard in the 1970s and served in the Ford, Reagan, and H.W. Bush administrations. It’s also worth noting that the Association of Black Harvard Women was perhaps the earliest and most visible student lobby pushing for Sullivan’s ouster.

Highly educated, well-connected men like Sullivan have the freedom to pursue a range of professional choices, but no one is free of the consequences of those choices. Just as taking a client creates conflict by which an attorney may not be able to counsel another client, being Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer means there can be no role for him as a trusted leader in undergraduate life. Casting doubt on victims’ compelling accounts of trauma doesn’t make a man a sexual assailant himself, but it doesn’t make him an advocate for women either.

This is not a zero-sum game, as Friedersdorf suggested when he wrote that “protecting the norms around the right to counsel is orders of magnitude more important than the ‘unenlightened or misplaced’ discomfort of some Harvard undergraduates.” A world where we acknowledge that women are systematically victimized throughout their lives is not a world in which we’ve done away with defense attorneys for the accused. Sullivan’s defenders may think they’re defending him on the basis of academic and professional freedom, but instead they’re defending a status quo that has caused so many women to suffer for so long.

That status quo persists at Harvard. This spring, freshman Phoebe Suh told her story of being raped by a classmate and reporting it hours later to University Health Services, where she sought medical treatment. Suh was given a range of treatment for her injuries, including preventative measures against pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. But no rape kit was administered because that is not standard protocol at Harvard, which instead insists that students’ first stop in a crisis be the emergency department at its on-campus hospital or the campus police. Soon thereafter, Suh got the message that there was basically no point in reporting her rape to the police, because she didn’t have any physical evidence to back up her claim. Her rapist remains a Harvard student. Last month, Suh got her housing assignment for next year: Winthrop House.