Understanding the Law: Problems at Harvard

May 21, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019


Harvard is one of only a handful of schools that immediately jumps from any resume.

Its reputation for educational excellence has survived wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and various controversial schools of thought. At this point in history, however, its adherence to the political orthodoxy of the left is threatening its image.

The immediate matter of concern relates to Ronald Sullivan, a clinical professor at the law school. Sullivan became the first black faculty dean to preside over a dorm at Harvard, when he and his wife, Stephanie Robinson (also a law professor), were appointed to oversee Winthrop House, an undergraduate dormitory where about 400 students live. Faculty deans are charged with supporting students academically and personally, and with overseeing the house’s social activities.

At the law school, Sullivan serves as the director of the Criminal Justice Institute. He is the architect of a conviction-review program in Brooklyn, New York, that has freed a score of improperly convicted individuals. In fact, the Huffington Post called him “the man who dealt the biggest blow to mass incarceration,” noting that he has won the release of more wrongfully incarcerated persons—more than 6,000—than anyone in U.S. history.

Unlike most law professors, Sullivan has worked on several high-profile cases. That includes the trial of former New England Patriots tight-end Aaron Hernandez for double murder; a civil suit brought by the family of Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fueled the Black Lives Matter movement; and actress Rose McGowan, who was facing drug charges.

Controversy arose in January, however, when Sullivan joined Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. Weinstein is the former Hollywood mogul who is facing first-degree rape and other charges as a result of allegations made by two women. More than 80 other women in the motion picture industry have also accused him of sexual abuse. Criminal investigations into complaints against him are ongoing in Los Angeles, New York City, and London. For his part, Weinstein has denied any nonconsensual sex.

Every defendant in the United States has the right to an attorney. That is expressly stated in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and it is part of the Miranda warnings, which are based on the Fifth Amendment. Criminal defendants are also entitled to the presumption of innocence. That should mean that Weinstein can employ an attorney of his choice and that the attorney should feel free to accept the work. Unfortunately, that is not how it worked this time.

Student Protests

In January, after having agreed to join the Weinstein defense team, Sullivan wrote an email to the residents of Winthrop House. In it, he explained a fundamental concept underlying the U.S. criminal law system: “It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else—perhaps even more important,” he wrote. “To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due-process rights, we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”

The email included an invitation to the students to talk to him further about this matter. “Winthrop has been and will remain a space that welcomes all points of view,” Sullivan wrote. “Free, frank and robust dialogue is the best way to clear up any confusions.”

Shortly thereafter, some student groups, including the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, questioned Sullivan’s suitability to be faculty dean at Winthrop House and called on him to resign. Op-eds, open letters, and a sit-in involving 178 undergraduates in Winthrop’s dining hall were all part of the movement. Someone spray-painted graffiti on university buildings, including “Our rage is self-defense,” “Down w Sullivan!” and “Whose side are you on?”

This attention caused the dean of the college, sociology professor Rakesh Khurana, to announce a “climate review” at Winthrop House, after which he would “take actions, as appropriate.” The students were sent a questionnaire asking things like whether they found Winthrop House “sexist” or “non-sexist,” and “hostile” or “friendly.”

The review didn’t go well for Sullivan. Some students said that his decision to represent Weinstein made them feel unsafe and posed a conflict with his leadership role at Winthrop. At least one said that Sullivan’s choice was “trauma-inducing.”

Khurana wrote in an email to students: “I take seriously the concerns that have been raised from members of the College community regarding the impact of Professor Sullivan’s choice to serve as counsel for Harvey Weinstein on the House community that he is responsible for leading as a faculty dean.”

As this was unfolding, the Harvard Law School faculty issued a letter in support of Sullivan. It said:

“We the 52 undersigned members of the Harvard Law School faculty support our colleague Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.’s dedication to the professional tradition of providing representation to people accused of crimes and other misconduct, including to those who are reviled. For the past 10 years while serving as faculty dean of Winthrop House, Professor Sullivan has represented alleged victims of sexual assault as well as people accused of sexual assault, murder, and terrorism. We call upon our university’s administration to recognize that such legal advocacy in service of constitutional principles is not only fully consistent with Sullivan’s roles of law professor and dean of an undergraduate house, but also one of the many possible models that resident deans can provide in teaching, mentoring, and advising students. The university owes a robust response to allegations of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. We respect students’ right to protest Professor Sullivan’s choice of clients. But we view any pressure by Harvard’s administration for him to resign as faculty dean of Winthrop, because of his representation or speaking on behalf of clients, as inconsistent with the university’s commitment to the freedom to defend ideas, however unpopular.”

Khurana, however, sided with the students. On May 11, he announced that Sullivan and Robinson would no longer be deans at the college, citing their “ineffective” efforts to improve “the climate” at Winthrop. He said nothing in the announcement about Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein, but the students who campaigned for his dismissal noted a “celebratory atmosphere,” The New York Times reported.

A Bad Message

Arguably, there are other reasons why Khurana failed to renew Sullivan. Eleven current and former staff members claimed to have experienced “a climate of hostility and suspicion” at Winthrop House stretching back a few years. Those complaints grew louder after the Weinstein representation was made public, but even if they are legitimate, this was a particularly poor time for Harvard to make the move. It sends a bad message and indicates a basic misunderstanding of the U.S. legal system.

When lawyers defend clients, they shepherd them through the legal process, defending their rights and assuring that they receive due process. In order for the truth to win out, lawyers for each side must zealously present their cases. That doesn’t mean that the attorneys condone or support alleged crimes. It’s how we best determine the truth.

The lesson from this case, however, is that good attorneys may have to decline representation of controversial clients or face consequences. That is bad for lawyers, defendants, and the judicial system.

In addition to losing his position at Winthrop House, Sullivan left the Weinstein legal defense team, a presumptively innocent man was deprived of his chosen lawyer, and the Harvard administration miseducated its students about the U.S. judicial system. That is a disservice to education and to justice.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.