Harvard University is declining to renew the dean position of law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who was part of a team with his wife leading one of the university’s residential colleges. Sullivan’s role has been under fire from students since he joined the legal team defending former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein from criminal sexual assault charges.
Sullivan and his wife were the first African Americans to lead one of Harvard’s residential colleges.
While Sullivan will no longer lead the residential college, he remains a faculty member at Harvard Law, where he is the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute.
Residential deans at Harvard have responsibilities for out-of-classroom education. The position was previously called a “house master.” It is considered a prestigious honor.
Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, sent an email announcing the decision to students at Winthrop College, where Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, have been deans.
“My decision not to renew the faculty deans was informed by a number of considerations. Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college,” Khurana said. “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.”
He added: “This is a regrettable situation and a very hard decision to make. I have long admired your faculty deans’ commitment to justice and civic engagement, as well as the good work they have done in support of diversity in their house community. I know that some of you are also proud of these efforts. I also know that some of you have been greatly helped and supported by your faculty deans in difficult situations. This decision in no way lessens my gratitude to them for their contributions to the college.”
In a joint statement, Sullivan and Robinson indicated they may take action on the decision.
“We are surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today. We believed the discussions we were having with high-level university representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks,” they said. “We will now take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options. We are sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time.”
Sullivan represented the family of Michael Brown in reaching a settlement with the city of Ferguson, Mo., on a wrongful death claim. He has also been credited with securing the release of thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people.
A petition from Change.org called for Sullivan’s ouster, and noted that while Weinstein has a right to a lawyer, Sullivan couldn’t do that and be an effective college dean at Harvard.
“For victims of sexual assault and rape on this campus who already feel disempowered by the sheer lack of activity in reprimanding such behavior, the developments of Dean Sullivan’s professional work are not only upsetting, but deeply trauma inducing,” the petition says.
“To be perfectly explicit: I am not saying Dean Sullivan should not be defending Weinstein,” the petition continued. “I am saying that in his role as a house dean, his defense of such a figure induces a great amount of fear and hurt in victims of the crimes that Weinstein is accused of, and although anyone facing the law is innocent until proven guilty, the scope of the Weinstein case still literally shakes people on this campus to this day. His role on Weinstein’s team, and position as a community leader, are not mutually exclusive and the former has incredibly harmful implications for the latter.”