Harvard said that they would not renew Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, positions as faculty deans of Winthrop House, a dorm for undergraduate student after student protest

Why were students upset? Because Sullivan is not only a law professor, he's a defense attorney and he joined the defense team for Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of rape and sexual assault and is the poster boy for the #metoo movement. Students said Sullivan's defense of Weinstein made him unqualified for a supportive dean role. Students held protests and anti-Sullivan graffiti appeared. 

In a letter to the students at Winthrop House, Dean Khurana wrote:

"Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college. 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."

Harvard's First Mistake

Things were not all sunshine and roses before Sullivan opted to represent Weinstein. There were conflicts and disharmony within Winthrop House that was left unresolved, going back to 2016. Most of this centered around staff members but eventually included the students as well.

It's not easy for anyone on the outside to tell if the problems were with the deans, Sullivan and Robinson, or with the other staff members. Of course, it's also possible that there is enough blame to go around. The important thing is, though, that there were years of problems before Sullivan agreed to defend Weinstein.

This situation should have been remedied years ago--whether through training, reassignment or termination. But, it wasn't.

Harvard's Second Mistake

Overall, Dean Khurana is correct that the "situation in the house is untenable." When you have students protesting the people who are supposed to ensure a nurturing environment, it makes it impossible to "improve the climate." But, that still doesn't mean firing (technically, not renewing the contract) Sullivan and Robinson is the right thing to do.

First, the need to recognize that while students look like customers, they are, in fact, not the customers of the university. Students are the products and the customers are the businesses that hire the students when they graduate. This is not how most people look at it, but if no one will hire your graduating students, no one will attend the school.

While no one thinks Harvard is at risk of losing its reputation tomorrow, when you start down this path, the end may not be what you've envisioned. Will people continue to respect an institution that acted against the rights of the accused?

Sullivan is a defense attorney. Weinstein needs a defense attorney. Everyone who is accused of a crime needs a defense attorney and everyone should get a good one. To equate defending someone accused of a crime as not being compassionate toward students is a ridiculous proposition. 

Students needed to be told to suck it up and given extra homework on the constitution and how lawyers work. The university needs to teach the students that what they are asking for would ultimately damage society if it is granted. At some point, some of these students may want a defense attorney and it would be tragic if acts like this discourage lawyers from taking on difficult cases.

The Two Mistakes Together

Ignoring problems and then having a big situation arise makes everything worse. Harvard should encourage its law professors to take on big-name clients. Students should be happy for the opportunity to see the criminal justice system in action.

But, when you have bad feelings and then a controversy, the leaders may reach their limit. And so what looks like a termination for a defense attorney actually doing his job, is, in reality, the end of a very long series of problems. 

You should never let problems fester or linger precisely because it's better to deal with them in the moment and postponing may cause problems. It's not unlike a woman who is a poor performer, but her manager didn't get around to documenting it when she announces she's pregnant. While the boss should have taken action sooner, he didn't, and now he can't without looking like he's firing her for being pregnant. And, in reality, he would be, just the same that Dean Khurana is terminating the contract for Sullivan and Robinson; because the Weinstein case was the last straw.

Regardless, Harvard is giving the wrong lesson to the students at Winthrop house, and those students should be ashamed of themselves. Every accused person deserves a defense attorney.

Published on: May 13, 2019
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