Harvard University said this week that Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., a law professor who has represented disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein would not continue as faculty dean of Winthrop House, an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, cowing to months of pressure from students.
The professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, who is a lecturer at the law school, have been the faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses for undergraduate students, since 2009. They were the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history.
But then Mr. Sullivan, a highly accomplished and skilled attorney, had the audacity to join the defense team of Mr. Weinstein in January. Many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Mr. Weinstein has of course not been convicted and is scheduled to go to trial in September in Manhattan on rape and related charges.
As the protests continued, Harvard administrators said they would conduct what they called “a climate review” of Winthrop House. In recent weeks, tensions have escalated, with a student sit-in and a lawsuit sparked by a clash between one of the protest leaders and two Winthrop House staff members who were seen as supporting Mr. Sullivan.
Sullivan and his wife were asked to step down as faculty deans though they remain professors at the school. So much is wrong with this scenario that it is actually hard to put into words. So that those students at Harvard can best understand it let me put it in the form of a listicle, “Top 7 Things Wrong About What Harvard Did to Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson”:
- Sullivan did not rape anyone. He did not sexually harass anyone. As faculty dean, he has never been accused of not properly investigating a charge of sexual harassment or sexual assault. He chose to act as a defense attorney for someone accused of crimes. If we start projecting the charges of the accused on to the lawyer we have seriously lost our way.
- Is there even not the remote possibility that Mr. Weinstein is innocent of some of the charges? Or that some of the charges have been exaggerated? Or that the prosecution has overstepped in other ways? Has the presumption of innocence just been swept away by thin-skinned college students? Already some charges initially brought were dropped, yet Weinstein (and his lawyers) are being condemned before being tried.
- Even if Weinstein is 100% guilty of every single charge, he has the absolute right to be defended zealously. Really. Its in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment – read it. If this right – and the implicit right contained in it to choose the lawyer of your choice – can be trampled on so easily then we have lost respect for our founding document.
- The Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, are brilliant pieces of governance. They were enacted to ensure that the criminally-accused received a fair trial. Sure there are flaws in the system. And you know who was one of the champions fighting against those flaws in defense of the weak and indigent: RONALD S. SULLIVAN, JR. (More on that later). These amendments are our protection from over-zealous prosecution and abuses of power. Whenever a criminal defense lawyer stands next to a defendant – be they innocent, guilty or somewhere in between – they are also standing up for those Amendments and the system overall. That’s the only way it works. If only people we like or people who commit crimes we can understand or relate to are given these rights, they lose their meaning. Every single criminal case is a test of the system at large. To make sure that there is sufficient proof, laid out before a jury in admissible form, to convince them of the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- I’m going to put on my “old man” hat now. What’s wrong with these kids? Have we so coddled them and over-empathized with them that we have no backbone to stand up to them when they are flat out wrong? Taking a”climate review” to test the temperature of the room shows that Harvard has lost its way. The correct message to have sent is an assembly on the Sixth Amendment and Ron Sullivan’s exemplary career (More on that later). But no. We can’t have our precious youth upset or disturbed. Let’s not have an intelligent discussion about why folks who we see as heinous need the same protection (if not more in fact) from potential government overreach. Let’s just throw the babies out with the bathwater. I feel like standing on the porch of Winthrop House and yelling “Get off of my Constitution!”
- He has done so much for the school and the community. At Harvard Law School, from where he graduated in 1994, President of the Black Law Students Association and served as a general editor of the Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, now known as the Harvard Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice. In addition to serving with his wife as Faculty Deans of Winthrop house, he is the Director of the School’s Criminal Justice Institute where – as he has put it – he serves as “a real live criminal defense lawyer for clients who can’t afford one.” Sullivan also oversees the January term Trial Advocacy Workshop, an intensive three-week course for Harvard Law students, featuring assistance from high-profile lawyers and judges from around the country. Sullivan is also a founding fellow, along with his wife, of the Jamestown Project which is actively involved with community organizations in the Massachusetts area, and regularly gives speeches and moderates panels on race-based violence. He is the faculty adviser to the Black Law Students Association. He has brought tremendous energy and respect to Harvard University.
7. Faux social justice warriors are moving to trample the reputation of a true and proven social justice warrior. Prof. Sullivan has spent his entire professional career seeking to ensure justice for the little guy and for the poor. From Law School, he went to work as a pubic defender and eventually became head of Washington DC’s Public Defender’s Office. His nationwide respect and acclaim for the way he handled that position, led President Barack Obama to appoint him as interim head of the Public Defender’s Office in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of that flood, President Obama was concerned that folks charged with looting, etc would not be treated fairly by the criminal justice system. Prof. Sullivan stepped in amid the madness and handled it with calm and skill. When Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson wanted to start his innovative Conviction Review Unit, he selected Prof. Sullivan as its head. Sullivan’s appointment was a watershed moment in criminal justice. Thompson had appointed a lifelong criminal defense attorney – for the indigent mostly, I remind you – to look under the rocks of his prosecutor’s office to see where the bodies were buried. The Unit created by Sullivan has exonerated 25 men to date and remains a model for similar units across the country. When he was first appointed, I dropped everything I was doing and drove up to Otisville Correctional Facility to meet with my then-client David McCallum to tell him that finally after years and years of struggle to prove his and his deceased co-defendant’s Willie Stuckey’s innocence, we at last were finally going to be heard. I couldn’t guarantee his exoneration, but I could guarantee that we would be treated fairly with Sullivan at the helm. And we were right – not just because he agreed with us and recommended vacating the convictions, but because we were treated with respect and given all the time we need to plead our case. Sullivan set the tone and demeanor of the Unit which was that justice would be served regardless of the outcome and with dignity and respect for all participants. And this – this is the man Harvard students don’t trust?!? He makes you uncomfortable?!? The only people Ron Sullivan makes uncomfortable are overzealous prosecutors, incompetent defense lawyers, and inept judges. Anybody else should be proud to be in his company. and to be associated with him. I know I consider it one of the highlights of my career to have met and worked with him and to consider him a friend and staunch ally to the wrongfully convicted and to the United States Constitution.
Shame on the Winthrop House students that caused this. Shame on the climate of political correctness that allowed this. And shame on Harvard for cow-towing to this behavior and besmirching in any way the reputation of a man like Ron Sullivan. And more importantly, shame on them all for disgracing the Right to Counsel and the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.
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