Harvard University law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. has withdrawn from the team of lawyers who will defend Harvey Weinstein in the former movie mogul’s sexual assault trial, saying the case will conflict with his teaching responsibilities.
Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and his wife, Harvard law lecturer Stephanie Robinson, will no longer be faculty deans of Winthrop House – one of 12 undergraduate residential houses at the Boston-area university – after their term ends June 30, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana said.
The couple are the first black faculty deans in Harvard’s history.
Khurana, in a letter explaining his decision not to renew the couple’s deanships, wrote generally about a deteriorating climate in the 400-student house but did not specify the underlying issue.
“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,” Khurana wrote.
“This decision in no way lessens my gratitude to them for their contributions to the college.”
Sullivan made waves on campus in January when he decided to represent Weinstein, the former movie mogul whose downfall helped launch the #MeToo movement.
Sullivan and Robinson reacted to the decision in a statement to CNN:
“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.
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 had told students that people deemed ‘vile’ deserve defense
Sullivan and attorney Jose Baez formally joined Weinstein’s defense team in late January.
That same day, Sullivan sent a lengthy email to undergraduate students and resident tutors at Winthrop House, defending the idea of representing people deemed to be “guilty, unpopular, vile or undesirable.”
“It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else – perhaps even more important,” Sullivan wrote.
“To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be. In fact, most of the due process rights we hold dearest derive from lawyers who represented unpopular defendants.”
The decision to represent a high-profile defendant in an assault case was fraught on Harvard’s campus, where sexual assault and harassment have been a major issue.
Just in the past year, Harvard’s head diving coach resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and a university government professor announced his retirement also over sexual misconduct allegations.
Sullivan is a longtime criminal defense attorney and criminal justice reform advocate. He represented the family of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and he spent his early legal career at the Public Defender Service in Washington.
The tenured Harvard Law School professor also is the faculty director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute.
Longtime Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer,” according to his university biography, said the situation “may be the worst violation of academic freedom” during his 55-year association with the school.
Dershowitz is among several attorneys with which the Weinstein defense team consults. He’s not formally retained by Weinstein, but has been granted permission to consult with his defense attorneys on constitutional issues, according to a Weinstein spokesperson
“The new McCarthyism comes to Harvard,” Dershowitz tweeted Sunday. “The firing of Dean Sullivan reminds me of the bad old days when lawyers were fired for representing communists, gay people, civil rights demonstrators and women seeking abortions.”
Harvard University is not commenting on Dershowitz’s comments, but in an interview with the school’s newspaper in February, Khurana said that faculty members are given “academic freedom to make decisions that are right for them,” and that “every individual is entitled to a vigorous defense.”
Weinstein’s trial begins later this year
Weinstein is accused of raping a woman in a New York hotel room in 2013 and forcibly performing oral sex on another woman at his Manhattan apartment in 2006.
The former film executive faces five felony charges: two counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of criminal sexual act in the first degree, and one count each of first-degree rape and third-degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Weinstein has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex.
The trial is to begin September 9.
CNN’s Eric Levenson and Augusta Anthony contributed to this report.