In the tumultuous few months since students began objecting to Harvard Law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.’s decision to defend Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein at his rape trial, the college has been reviewing the living climate at Winthrop House, the residential community he leads as faculty dean.
But, suffice it to say, the climate is anything but copacetic.
On Friday, students dressed in red occupied the Winthrop House dining hall to “reclaim it as a safe space” for survivors of sexual assault. In recent weeks, the house was spray-painted with #MeToo graffiti and papered with illustrated fliers that Sullivan called “racially offensive.” It was also the site of a tense dining hall interaction between a student who started the protests against Sullivan and an adult tutor perceived to be loyal to him. (Each called police, alleging harassment by the other.)
And now — as may have been inevitable all along — a dispute rooted in the campus controversy over Weinstein’s high-powered legal representation is headed to court. Two tutors who live in Winthrop House are suing another faculty member for defamation connected to the Sullivan controversy, and their lawyer — Sullivan’s sometime legal partner — has subpoenaed the student newspaper for all communications concerning Sullivan.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Amelia Y. Goldberg, a Harvard senior and an activist with a group called Our Harvard Can Do Better, which has pushed for Sullivan’s removal as faculty dean. She called the steps taken against student activists and their supporters “intimidation and retaliation tactics.”
“Every development has been shocking,” she added. “I never would have thought that it would have gone so far.”
The controversy dates to January, when news broke that Sullivan would be among the lawyers on Weinstein’s legal defense team. Students surprised by his decision began protesting, saying Sullivan’s role as in-house mentor at Winthrop House was incompatible with a job as defender of the most infamous alleged villain of the #MeToo movement.
Harvard Law professors and others rushed to Sullivan’s defense, noting that he is an esteemed lawyer who has handled many high-profile cases, including representing the family of Michael Brown in the Ferguson case, and actress Rose McGowan — one of Weinstein’s fiercest accusers — on a drug possession charge.
Every defendant, no matter how unpopular, Sullivan’s defenders said, deserves a robust defense in court.
“It’s a constitutional right that [Weinstein] would have a defense,” Harvard Law professor Janet Halley said. “Some of us would represent Harvey Weinstein. Some of us would never, ever. Telling someone else they can’t do it? Or if they do it they’re not fit to walk the halls of a residential house, that they’re a danger to the community or somehow not respectable anymore? Those are bad things for our leadership to be thinking.”
Halley was among 52 law professors who voiced support for Sullivan in March over concern Harvard’s administration might pressure him to resign as faculty dean.
The administration has not moved to unseat Sullivan, but Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana called for a survey of the living climate at Winthrop. Sullivan bristled, saying that no other faculty dean had been subjected to a student review in the midst of a controversy. He did not speak to the Globe for this story. But in an interview with The New Yorker published in March, Sullivan, the first African-American to serve as faculty dean of a Harvard house, suggested his treatment might be racially tinged.
“It’s absolutely never happened before, and I do not believe that it would happen again to any non-minority faculty dean,” he told The New Yorker.
Winthrop House is one of 12 residential communities into which Harvard College undergraduates are sorted — an arrangement often likened to the houses of the Harry Potter series’ fictional Hogwarts school. Located along Memorial Drive, Winthrop forms a community in which 400 students eat, live, and socialize; Sullivan is their Dumbledore.
Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, have served since 2009 as faculty deans of Winthrop, where they live with their two children. As faculty deans, they lead the house and are responsible for all students and other staff — including resident deans, administrators, and 18 resident tutors.
Two of those resident tutors, a married couple named Carl and Dr. Valencia Miller, were involved in a conflict in the Winthrop dining hall in early April with Danu A.K. Mudannayake, a student activist who has led the protests against Sullivan.
Mudannayake believed Carl Miller was taking video of her; Miller denied it and accused her of harassing him, his wife, and their 3-month-old baby.
The Millers, who are in their 40s, live in Winthrop House as residential assistants, of a sort. Carl Miller is a law student, not at Harvard, and his wife is a doctor at a hospital unaffiliated with Harvard.
The Millers have filed suit in Middlesex Superior Court, accusing the faculty dean of another Harvard house, Gail O’Keefe, of defamation and of working “in concert with Ms. Mudannayake to discredit Plaintiffs because they perceived Plaintiffs as supporting Dean Sullivan.”
The Millers’ lawyer is George J. Leontire, who has worked with Sullivan on legal teams that defended high-profile defendants, including former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez.
The Millers allege O’Keefe defamed them by falsely telling another Winthrop House official via text message that the Millers had been asked to leave their previous Harvard posting. In addition, after the dining hall incident, according to the suit, O’Keefe sent an e-mail to hundreds of students saying the Millers had acted “totally unprofessionally and dishonestly” and urged students to offer Mudannayake “a sign of support, even just a smile.”
Neither O’Keefe nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
In support of the Millers’ defamation complaint, Leontire has subpoenaed a reporter for the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, demanding any e-mails, texts, or other documents concerning Sullivan, as well as the other players. The Crimson is resisting the subpoena, saying its reporter is not a party to the case.
“Under the First Amendment, the media have traditionally — and properly — opposed efforts to turn reporters into agents of discovery for one side or the other in a civil suit,” wrote Crimson president Kristine Guillaume. “We see no basis for deviating from that practice here.”
Leontire said his subpoena was a means to determine whether O’Keefe “was defaming my clients in other ways other than the two that I’m aware of.”
Sullivan, meanwhile, has complained about the Crimson’s coverage of the Winthrop House dispute all along. Mudannayake is a design editor at the Crimson. In an e-mail sent to students and obtained by the Globe, Sullivan accused the paper of being one-sided and circulated letters from his supporters that, he said, the Crimson had declined to publish.
“I don’t really understand where that’s coming from,” Mudannayake said of his Crimson criticism, in an interview. “I think that e-mail . . . just seemed very inappropriate for the dean to be doing that kind of stuff.”
Mudannayake also said that speaking up against Sullivan has led to retaliation.
After the dining hall incident, Leontire threatened to bring a complaint against Mudannayake under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits gender-based harassment and violence at educational institutions. He has since backed away from that.
“I was stupefied by that,” said Goldberg, the other activist, who has worked on Title IX advocacy issues. “There simply was nothing sexual and gender-based about this interaction.”
Leontire said it’s easy to claim intimidation “as a way to deflect your bad behavior.”
“You have a right to demonstrate. You have a right to vocalize,” he said. “You don’t have a right to vandalize. You don’t have a right to caricature someone who’s black on the fliers that are distributed. You don’t have a right to harass people because you think they may have a different opinion. If you want to behave in a way that breaks the law, which a lot of people in civil disobedience have done in the past, then you’re responsible for paying the consequences.“
He acknowledged that people are angry about the accusations against Weinstein and “appalled at what we’ve learned through the #MeToo” phenomenon. But he said students are unfairly projecting their anger onto Weinstein’s attorney.
“I think it’s the Salem witch trials all over again,” Leontire said. “Burn everybody at the stake, no matter how they’re connected.”