Verbum Ultimum: A Fair Hearing?

Harvard's dismissal of Ronald Sullivan is unfair.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/24/19 2:05am

On May 11, Harvard University’s dean of the college Rakesh Khurana announced that the faculty dean of Winthrop House, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., would be removed from his position. The news comes five months after Sullivan, a professor at Harvard Law School, announced that he would serve as a lawyer for Harvey Weinstein, who currently faces multiple criminal charges for sexual misconduct.

Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein provoked immediate backlash among some Harvard students, who incited numerous protests and created online petitions. The students claimed that Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein conflicted with his role as faculty dean of Winthrop House, a position which requires him to foster a sense of community within the house. 

In response to the backlash, Harvard initiated a month-long “climate review” process, which assessed whether students felt “homophobia, elitism and friendliness” were present within Winthrop House — questions which gauged students’ reactions to Sullivan without explicitly naming him.

The results of the climate review have not been publicly released. However, even though Harvard also considered allegations that Sullivan created a hostile work environment within Winthrop — a claim that is unconnected to Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein — the immediate and obvious impetus for this investigation was Sullivan’s choice to represent an unpopular client. There is nothing wrong with Sullivan’s decision as a lawyer to defend Weinstein. The right to counsel is a cornerstone of our legal system, and even characters as unsavory as Harvey Weinstein deserve a fair trial. To fire Sullivan solely on the grounds of representing an unpopular client would be blatantly unjust. But Harvard only removed Sullivan after extensive student backlash, raising the question of whether student opinions were what ultimately determined the university’s decision.

The controversy at Harvard is reminiscent of a similar case that unfolded here at Dartmouth. In the spring of 2017, Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 was appointed as the dean of faculty of arts and sciences; however, some members of the Dartmouth community raised concerns about his external affiliations. Economics professor Alan Gustman circulated a campus-wide email saying that Duthu’s prior advocacy of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions disqualified him for a leadership position at Dartmouth. The 2013 paper, which Duthu wrote while he was treasurer of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, expressed support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, an organization that is strongly critical of Israel and that some consider to be anti-Semitic.  

The situation escalated as Duthu and Gustman sent additional emails to the faculty. On May 5, 2017, one of Gustman’s letters to the faculty was published in the right-wing publication FrontPage Magazine under the headline “Dartmouth Appoints Anti-Semitic Terrorist Enabler as its New Dean.” Meanwhile, many members of the Dartmouth faculty, including the chair of the Jewish studies program, defended Duthu and expressed support for him at a faculty meeting. 

Duthu eventually declined the appointment, saying that the controversy had become a “distraction for me professionally and a source of considerable pain and frustration for me personally.” For his part, College President Phil Hanlon expressed “great regret” about the decision and praised Duthu’s “enormous integrity and moral character.”

Both of these cases highlight external factors that, in the eyes of some people, disqualify a faculty member from a dean position. But neither case is clear-cut enough to disqualify the faculty member, especially in Sullivan’s case — in our view, his decision to defend Weinstein is fully justified. Instead of acting on that principle and defending Sullivan, Harvard seems to have decided that its students’ feelings about Harvey Weinstein ought to hold more weight than Weinstein’s right to counsel and Sullivan’s right to exercise his duty as counsel. 

We haven’t seen the results of Harvard’s climate review, and perhaps Harvard’s administration genuinely uncovered legitimate reasons that Sullivan cannot adequately perform his duties as faculty dean of Winthrop House. We hope, however, that Harvard made this decision based on a careful consideration of the facts and not as a concession to the whims of a protest movement. If Harvard removed Sullivan purely for representing Weinstein, it set a dangerous precedent, one that undermines the fundamental tenets of our legal system. Sullivan, like everyone, deserves a fair hearing, and it seems as though Harvard didn’t give him one.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.