Harvard Crimson: Ronald Sullivan story may be more complicated than we think

May 13, 2019 • 1:15 pm

As I’ve reported recently, Harvard’s Winthrop House faculty deans Ronald Sullivan (a black professor at the Law School) and his wife Stephanie Robinson were fired by Harvard’s Invertebrate Dean Rakesh Khurana after a “climate survey” of the House. This took place after students became outraged when Sullivan decided to become part of Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. (He’d previously defended all kinds of clients, including those approved of by the Woke.) The students called for his removal, and he has been removed. I’ve just learned from the tweet below that Sullivan has now withdrawn from Weinstein’s defense team (Jeannie Suk Gersen is also a Professor at Harvard’s Law School).

A new Harvard Crimson article, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot, recounts interviews with six disaffected Winthrop House staff (not students) who were upset by the claimed authoritarian atmosphere of the House under Sullivan’s leadership. The paper implies that this also helped prompt Sullivan’s and Robinson’s dismissal. Other not interviewed also expressed discontent in a letter. All of the incidents happened over the last three years.

The allegations aren’t specific, but show that the complainants were unhappy and that there was a high turnover of House Administrators, who I presume run the day-to-day business of these residential “dorms.”

Reporting by the Crimson:

Eleven current and former staff members endorsed a statement sent to The Crimson Thursday stating they experienced “a climate of hostility and suspicion” while working for Sullivan and Robinson.

“During our time as tutors at Winthrop House, we experienced a workplace climate of hostility and suspicion generated by the Faculty Deans, Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson,” the statement reads. “Although we recognize that not all tutors shared our experience, we do believe that many tutors and staff members were subject to improper and antagonistic behavior by the Faculty Deans.”

. . .Many of the staffers also alleged that Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Dean for Administration Sheila C. Thimba, and former Dean of Students Stephen Lassonde have also been aware of issues within Winthrop’s walls for several years and did not adequately address what more than a dozen current and former Winthrop students and staff deemed a toxic climate.

. . .In the decade since Sullivan and Robinson became faculty deans of Winthrop, the 11 other upperclassmen houses have had, on average, one or two House Administrators. From 2010 to 2018, three houses had one House Administrator and five had two. In 2018, the average tenure of a non-Winthrop House Administrator was 9.45 years.

In that period, Winthrop House had nine. Winthrop’s current House Administrator, its tenth under Sullivan and Robinson, took office just six weeks ago, on March 26.

Eleven current and former Winthrop staff members said they believe Sullivan and Robinson created a challenging environment that led to the high turnover of House Administrators.

Four former Winthrop staff members said they saw House Administrators cry while on the job sometimes after being told to do things they believed fell out of their purview, including personal errands and tasks for the faculty deans such as grocery shopping.

Kohn, who left the House in March, wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that the three permanent House Administrators she overlapped with all faced “difficulties” while working for Sullivan and Robinson.

“I don’t feel comfortable speaking on their behalf over their reasons for departing or their experiences while they were still in that office, but I do think I can say that their experiences, as they reported them, were very consistent with one another,” Kohn wrote. “They’re all very different people in terms of professional and personal backgrounds, but they all seemed to have similar experiences in that office.”

But the disaffection grew exponentially after Sullivan announced last January that he would join Weinstein’s legal team, when students began calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal. When the atmosphere grew more tense, with student demonstrations at the House, Dean Khurana commissioned the “climate report” in March that led to Sullivan and Robinson’s dismissal (or rather, the refusal to renew their contracts).

It’s clear that things were not proceeding smoothly in Winthrop House, but equally clear that had Sullivan not agreed to represent Weinstein, the climate survey would not have taken place. Given the outrage about Weinstein, this was clearly the deciding factor in commissioning a report, a report whose results were, given the student objections, preordained. Sullivan retains his position at the Law School (several dozen professors have written a letter supporting him), but, worse, Khurana retains his position as Dean of Harvard College. (Given his previous shenanigans, such as instituting punishment for students who joined same-sex but off campus “finals clubs”, Khurana should be the one to go.)

I discussed this with Greg Mayer, who went to Harvard when I was there, has followed this story, and gave me permission to give his take on the whole affair. He said this:

I’ve read the Crimson piece. I’m entirely willing to believe that Sullivan was a bad leader, and mishandled the staff of tutors and other administrators at the House. But there was scarcely a mention of student complaints—it was all about the staff. If they want to sack him for running the place poorly, that’s fine—I have no basis for thinking one way or the other. But Khurana’s statements about “climate” sure make it sound like it’s all about disapproval of Harvey Weinstein, and that’s an absolutely unacceptable reason to sack a law professor as a house dean. The right of accused to counsel, even if they’re guilty, is a bedrock principle of liberal democracy, and an academic defense attorney should be lauded, not sacked, for taking a case against the tide of social fashion. John Adams said that the best service he ever did for his country was to defend the British soldiers accused of murder at the Boston Massacre.

Harvard has to either prove administrative incompetence convincingly, and publicly, soon, or else there’s no way this is not a black mark. The whiff of condescending to the mob taints Harvard’s actions. It’s a case where even if guilty of administrative incompetence, it would be better to keep him lest it seem to put Harvard’s imprimatur on rank prejudice.

University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter, who runs the popular website “Leiter Reports”, is also peeved at Sullivan’s firing, and in a new post reproduces a letter from a philosophy professor to Dean Khurana:

Dear Dean Khurana,

As a moral philosopher who strives to teach her students the values of seeking the truth, promoting the good, and remaining courageous in the face of those who would sacrifice both in the interests of expediency, I am appalled at your recent cowardice in failing to come to the defense of your colleagues, Professor Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson. If someone of your stature and privilege cannot be counted on to defend principles such as the constitutional right of the accused to counsel and the contractual right of professors to defend themselves against politically motivated attack, then the academy is in a sorry state, indeed. As professors, our first allegiance should be to educate those students in our care. You, Sir, have revealed yourself to be derelict in that duty. I respectfully request that you resign.

Yours most sincerely,

Michelle Mason Bizri
Adjunct Associate Professor | Department of Philosophy
Brown University
Website: Researchers at Brown

Associate Professor | Department of Philosophy
University of Minnesota
Website: @cla.umn.edu

Leiter has also found out about the other allegations in the Crimson article and adds this: “This article suggests there may have been other factors at play in the decision to remove Professors Sullivan and Robinson; unfortunately, the Dean’s statement does not shed any light on that.  As it stands, it appears the trigger for this decision was the misguided student protests”

I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. Had Sullivan not taken Weinstein as a client, he almost certainly would not have been fired. Even at Harvard, then, the Offense Brigade has mobilized and won. Slowly but surely, Harvard is becoming Woke.

11 thoughts on “Harvard Crimson: Ronald Sullivan story may be more complicated than we think

  1. John Adams said that the best service he ever did for his country was to defend the British soldiers accused of murder at the Boston Massacre.

    His son, JQA, a Harvard alum just like his daddy, represented the slaves who had revolted aboard, and then slaughtered the captain and crew of, the ship La Amistad. Representing the infamous and unpopular — poor or rich — is in keeping with the finest traditions of the legal profession.

  2. Having played basketball with him, I can assure you that Rakesh is a vertebrate.

    Looking at that article and the timing and Sullivan’s accusing the tutors of organizing the students against him, and all the complaints leading up to it, I can believe it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    I can understand that students in the house (50 of the 400 complained, so it’s a significant number) felt that this guy was already a jerk, and now he’s representing Harvey Weinstein, and I have to go to him for emotional support?

    I get the feeling that there’s more going on under the surface (or from those people who didn’t respond), and that there’s not enough information to say that the students don’t like him defending people so he got canned.

  3. [In]vertebrate…
    What a clever comparison of literal and figurative backbones! :-).
    Nice to read this interesting subject, and looking forward to follow the comments.

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