The graffiti showed up on the door of a Harvard University building last week: “Our rage is self-defense,” and “Whose side are you on?”
The unexpected target was Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., director of Harvard’s criminal-law clinic and the first African-American to be appointed a faculty dean.
This year, Sullivan joined a team of lawyers representing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who heads to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges.
The move sparked protests and intense debate at the Ivy League campus where a small, but vocal, group of students have called for his resignation as dean of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential colleges for undergraduate students.
Some students said they did not believe Sullivan was fit to serve as a dean of a residential college and at the same time represent Weinstein, who has been accused by more than 80 women of sexual harassment and, in some cases, assault.
In his first public remarks, Sullivan said in a phone interview Monday that he did not anticipate the level of backlash he has received. He has a long history of taking on high-profile and, at times, controversial clients, as well as representing students who have been victims of sexual assault, he said.
“Lawyers are not an extension of their clients,” Sullivan said. “Lawyers do law work, not the work of ideology. When I’m in my lawyer capacity, representing a client, even one publicly vilified, it doesn’t mean I’m supporting anything the client may have done.”
Some students disagree. Dozens of protesters, some with tape over their mouths, protested last month in front of the administration building, holding signs that said “Remove Sullivan” and “#MeToo.” About 270 people have signed an online petition calling for him to resign from his faculty dean position.
“Do you really want to one day accept your diploma from someone who for whatever reason, professional or personal, believes it is OK to defend such a prominent figure at the center of the #MeToo movement?” one student, Danu Mudannayake, wrote in the petition.
In the past week, the doors of Winthrop House were spray-painted with graffiti and had flyers posted on them that included an illustration of Sullivan that some students described as “racially insensitive.”
The fliers, which were also distributed throughout the campus, included images of Weinstein and Roland Fryer Jr., a Harvard economics professor who has been accused of sexual harassment.
Protests regarding Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein have erupted at the college, and members of the Association of Black Harvard Women said in a public letter addressed to Sullivan: “You have failed us.”
But many of Sullivan’s colleagues have come to his defense. Dozens of law professors from the university on Feb. 14 sent a letter to the college in support of Sullivan. On Feb. 28, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, who wrote:
“Those calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal as a faculty dean solely because he is serving as Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer in a rape prosecution are displaying an array of disturbingly widespread tendencies. One is impatience with drawing essential distinctions such as that between a lawyer and his client. Another is a willingness to minimize or dispense with important safeguards like fair trials. Yet another is a tendency to resort to demonization.”
The dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, said in a statement Feb. 20 regarding Sullivan that the right to a vigorous defense is a cornerstone of the justice system. Yet he also announced last week that the college would conduct a “climate review” of how students at Winthrop House view Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein and “take action as appropriate,” according to The Harvard Crimson.
“It is not lost on me that I’m the first African-American to hold this position,” Sullivan said. “Never in the history of the faculty dean position has the dean been subjected to a ‘climate review’ in the middle of some controversy.”
A spokeswoman for the university declined to comment.
Sullivan has had other controversial clients. He defended Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots player, at his second murder trial, when he was acquitted of murdering two men in Boston. Sullivan also represented the family of Usaamah Rahim, a man shot by the Boston police who had been accused of being a terrorist.
Sullivan has largely built a career helping to overturn wrongful convictions and he also designed an indigent defense system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that resulted in the exoneration of thousands of people falsely convicted of crimes.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office tapped Sullivan in 2014 to design a conviction integrity unit to identify wrongfully convicted people that has become a national model. In 2017, he also helped the family of Michael Brown, a man killed by police in Missouri, obtain a reported $1.5 million settlement from the city of Ferguson after the family had filed a wrongful-death suit.
Mudannayake, a design editor at The Harvard Crimson, said the students’ quarrel with Sullivan was not that he took on a controversial, high-profile client.
But Mudannayake said faculty deans like Sullivan are responsible for setting the tone and culture in their houses, and students in Winthrop House felt that Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein disrupted the safe atmosphere of their community.
“Everyone on this campus knows what #MeToo is and who Harvey Weinstein is,” she said. “And it’s just shocking that it’s been brought quite literally to some students’ doorsteps.”
Sullivan wrote in an email to Winthrop students in January that all defendants, even the most disliked, have “basic due process rights.” On Monday, he said the students’ concern was genuine, but misplaced.
Sullivan called the controversy “a teachable moment,” and expressed concern that the climate review could have a chilling effect on faculty who engage in work that may be unpopular.
One former student, whose name is being withheld because she is a survivor of sexual assault, said she had no problem with Sullivan representing Weinstein. Sullivan, she said, has been a staunch advocate for victims and had represented her with her case. She said she had trusted only two people to tell about the attack, and one was Sullivan.
The woman, who went on to become a sex crimes prosecutor, said in an interview Monday that one unfortunate effect of the #MeToo movement was a tendency for the public to rush to judgment when someone is accused of sexual assault without affording any sort of due process.
Diana L. Eck, a longtime faculty dean at Harvard, said it seemed students in Winthrop House felt Sullivan’s outside work as a defense lawyer was “fracturing that sense of community” and making it harder for students in Winthrop House to discuss sexual assault openly.
“There’s nobody that would think that every single person doesn’t deserve the best possible legal representation in court — of course we believe that,” Eck said. “It’s just, you know, to what extent does that commitment to legal representation in a very high-profile case like this collide with the responsibilities of being a community leader at Harvard?”