Posted on July 25, 2019

How Harvard Caved to Student Protesters and Fired Its First Black Faculty Dean

Roger Parloff, Newsweek, July 1, 2019

Last month, Harvard College told Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife that it would not renew their contracts as faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of the school’s 12 residential communities. They had held their positions for ten years. When appointed, they were the first African-Americans to be named faculty deans at Harvard.

Their contentious departure was the culmination of a series of campus protests. The turmoil was unleashed after the New York Post reported in January that Sullivan — a clinical professor at Harvard Law School, the head of its Criminal Justice Institute and a nationally prominent criminal defense attorney — would be joining the team of lawyers representing film producer Harvey Weinstein. Since October 2017, when more than a dozen women first came forward with accusations, Weinstein had become the personification of power-based, sexual harassment and assault, accelerating the worldwide #MeToo movement. Sullivan would be helping defend Weinstein against a five-count indictment in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan alleging rape and predatory sexual abuse.

Some students protested that the role on Weinstein’s team was inconsistent with Sullivan’s duties as faculty dean, and even that they felt unsafe with a dean who was aiding such a person.

In a Newsweek exclusive, Sullivan gives his first interview since his ouster. In it, he defends his decision to take the case and accuses Rakesh Khurana, the Dean of Harvard College, of “cower[ing]” and “capitulating” to the “loudest voices in the room.”

“I certainly cannot dispute how some people feel,” he says. “But I strongly believe that it’s … the job of the educator is to help students determine whether their feelings are rational… I would argue that a good educator would explore those feelings and help educate the student in a way where the student can exist in a diverse, heterogeneous environment.”


While serving as Winthrop House’s faculty dean, Ron Sullivan handled many high-profile cases, though most were the kind that were apt to be seen as popular causes on a college campus. He represented the family of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. (The family won a $1.5 million wrongful death settlement in 2017.) In 2014, Sullivan designed and implemented the conviction review unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, which has since won release for more than 20 wrongfully convicted inmates, some of whom had served decades in prison.

In 2009, Sullivan and Robinson were named House Masters at Winthrop House. (Harvard changed the “House Master” title to “Faculty Dean” in 2016, after complaints about the term’s associations with slavery.)

On May 13, a few days after Sullivan was told that his faculty dean contract would not be renewed, Sullivan withdrew from the Weinstein representation. He cited a judge’s decision to postpone the start of the Weinstein trial from June until September, when it would conflict with Sullivan’s teaching schedule.


[Editor’s Note: A lengthy interview with Sullivan accompanies the article.]