Last month, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana announced that Ronald Sullivan, a professor in the law school, would no longer serve as faculty dean of Winthrop House, a residential dorm at Harvard. Sullivan was the first African American to serve as a faculty dean and had served in that role at Winthrop House for a decade. But when he chose to join the legal team defending Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in his upcoming criminal trial on allegations of sexual assault, his decision sparked protests and sit-ins, as students demanded his ouster as dean. In the end, Harvard caved to the pressure.
The decision sacrificed principles central to our legal system.
The ACLU is committed to fighting sexual assault, in the workplace, the home, on campus, and in the world at large. At the same time, Weinstein, like every person accused of a crime, is presumed innocent in his criminal case unless he pleads or is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Commitment to that principle, and to the system mandated by our Constitution, means we are equally devoted to the principle that every criminal defendant, no matter how vilified, no matter how innocent or guilty, and no matter how poor or rich, deserves a lawyer. If the latter principle is to be respected, it is essential that society not conflate a criminal defense lawyer’s representation with his or her client’s acts.
ACLU lawyers, for example, have successfully represented convicted sex offenders challenging the inhuman and onerous conditions imposed on them after they have served their time. We defend men held at Guantanamo accused of terrorism. We have defended dozens of men on death row who have been found guilty of brutal murders. And we have advocated for the First Amendment rights of Ku Klux Klan members, flag-burners, and Nazis.
These are not easy cases to take on. It should go without saying that we take them not because we support sex offenses, murder, flag-burning, or white supremacy. We do so because we are committed to defending our constitution’s fundamental protections — no matter how vile the actions or views at issue in these cases. Public defenders similarly provide zealous representation to any indigent client, regardless of the underlying allegations, and our criminal justice system depends on their work. Once people begin to confuse a lawyer’s defense of important principles with the defense of despicable acts, it is much more difficult to uphold these principles — at least for those who society is eager to vilify.
Ron Sullivan’s career is a quintessential example of this kind of lawyering. For example, he served as director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. He has repeatedly advised district attorney’s offices about setting up meaningful conviction integrity programs, and he has represented victims of injustice, including the family of Michael Brown, killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In short, Sullivan’s work, more so than most, has served marginalized communities.
Some have alleged that Sullivan was not an effective dean, wholly apart from his controversial representation of Weinstein. The college conducted a “climate survey” at Winthrop House and heard a number of complaints about his deanship. But it is telling that Sullivan was dean for 10 years without any effort to oust him. It was only after he undertook the representation of Weinstein that the students began to protest, the college surveyed the “climate,” and then dismissed him. From all appearances, it was Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein, not his performance as dean, that prompted his dismissal.
The Crimson, the Harvard student paper, supported the action, as did several student groups. The student paper editorialized that there is an “incongruity” between “defending Weinstein in his role as defense attorney while simultaneously working to promote a safe and comfortable environment for victims of sexual misconduct and assault in his capacity of faculty dean.” And some have argued that the dismissal as dean is not such a big deal, because Sullivan remains a tenured professor.
But nothing about being a defense attorney makes one unqualified to serve as a dean. Moreover, Sullivan responded to concerns that his representation might affect his role as faculty dean. He set forth multiple processes and resources for students to bring complaints about sexual assault; made a resident dean, Linda Chavers, a “point person”; and identified multiple other persons who could both receive complaints and counsel students.
The second contention — that Sullivan was simply dismissed as dean, not fired altogether — suggests that it is okay to compromise principle if the harm inflicted is small. But that’s not how principle works. If it were established, for example, that he was dismissed because he is Black, no one would say it’s okay because he’s still on the faculty.
The student protests at Harvard provided the institution with an opportunity. It could have used the incident as a teachable moment about the importance of criminal defense in our society as well as about the importance of tolerance on a campus of higher learning. It could have demonstrated that there is a fundamental distinction between a lawyer and his clients — and that our system of rights depends on that distinction. Instead, it sacrificed principle in an apparent quest for an easy way out.
What lesson does that teach?