BOSTON — A Harvard Law School professor who was ousted as a faculty dean amid a campus uproar for working on the legal defense of Harvey Weinstein is speaking out publicly for the first time, saying the university abandoned the academic values that make it special.
Sullivan, in a new sharply worded YouTube video co-narrated with his wife, law professor Stephanie Robinson, says they are setting out to “help restore academic freedom, reason, discourse and honor at Harvard College.”
“When Harvard University, to which the entire world looks for leadership, abandons its commitments to academic freedom and open and unfettered debate, it undermines its responsibilities and its opportunities,” Sullivan says in the video posted Friday. “Regrettably, Harvard’s administrators acted in ways grossly antagonistic to the very norms that make Harvard the epitome of higher education.”
Sullivan and Robinson, the first African-American faculty deans in Harvard’s history, were not renewed as deans of the school’s Winthrop House when their terms ended last month. Sullivan had been the subject of protests from students since January when he emerged as one of the attorneys representing Weinstein – the Hollywood media mogul whose allegations helped ignite the #MeToo movement – as he fights multiple sex-crime charges.
“A university, it’s a place where bright young minds are supposed to learn the disciplines of framing and grappling with arguments and quite frankly, respecting and understanding the views of others,” Robinson says in the video.
“So when a place like Harvard pays insufficient attention to that vital work, it not only betrays the ambitions of the university and its students, but it quite frankly betrays our academic traditions.”
Both Sullivan and Robinson remain law professors despite no longer serving as faculty deans.
In a statement, Harvard downplayed Sullivan’s Weinstein representation as the reason why the couple was not renewed.
“As we have repeatedly stated, the decision not to renew Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson was not directly related to the Weinstein representation, but rather due to their failure to fulfill their responsibilities as faculty deans of Winthrop House,” Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said.
In that role, the couple served as resident leaders of one of 12 buildings that house undergraduate students.
At the time of Harvard’s decision, Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, called the situation “untenable,” pointing to the “climate in the Winthrop House,” not specifically the Weinstein outrage. Sullivan withdrew from representing Weinstein shortly after, citing the upcoming trial, set to begin Sept. 9, as conflicting with teaching commitments.
“Let’s be clear,” Sullivan says in the new video. “It was my willingness to represent Mr. Weinstein in the first place that prompted a furor and ultimately Harvard’s decision to dismiss us as faculty deans. We know this to be true as does the Harvard community including its most senior members.
“What’s at stake here is not my future or ours or even our family’s,” he continues. “We will be fine. What is at stake are the values that underwrite the best traditions of higher education, the very same traditions that has sustained Harvard for 400 years.”
The video, titled “When Harvard Stumbles …,” appears to be just the beginning of the couple’s efforts to push back at the university. At the end of the more than 5-minute video, Robinson says, “You’re going to hear from us more about all of these issues in the very near future.”
Harvard’s decision has set off a debate over the professional freedom of professors and prompted legal scholars to defend defendants’ right to due process.
But Sullivan’s detractors have said they acknowledge the constitutional right for everyone, even unpopular defendants, to have a legal defense. Instead, they have questioned Sullivan’s ability to simultaneously carry out a house dean position whose duties they said include being a protector of students and ensuring they feel comfortable sharing concerns.
Early on amid the students protest, Khurana, the college’s chancellor, had offered support for Sullivan’s “academic freedom” to represent Weinstein.
Even before the Weinstein controversy, the couple attracted criticism over their leadership as faculty deans. The student-run Harvard Crimson reported that a dozen Winthrop tutors, students and staff brought concerns about Sullivan and Robinson to Harvard administrators over the past three years.
The couple did not address those issues in their video.
“Ron and I are here today to say that dissent is essential but demonetization is unacceptable,” Robinson says. “Since our time as students here at Harvard, we have joined in vigorous protests for the causes that are important to us. But we did not demonize the people with whom we disagreed. We did not, nor would we ever attack the character of innocence.
“This is an issue that we’ve been saying is symptomatic of a larger societal problem, and it’s the increasing sense that feelings and emotions and ad hominem attacks can be or even should be the substitute for intellectual arguments. They should not.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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