A bruising, semester-long controversy at Harvard University over a law professor’s pending criminal defense of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein ended abruptly Saturday with an announcement that Harvard Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is losing his position as head of Winthrop House.
Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, will not have their appointments as faculty deans renewed when their term ends on June 30, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana announced Saturday. Khurana had recently initiated a review of the climate in Winthrop House, where Sullivan supervises some 400 undergraduates.
“The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the House,” Khurana said in a statement. “I have concluded that the situation in the House is untenable.”
Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane rejected the suggestion Sullivan was losing his post because of his representation of Weinstein, saying the decision “was informed by a number of considerations.”
She noted the review revealed serious concerns about Sullivan’s leadership, but also pointed to complaints from other Winthrop House employees that predated the Weinstein controversy and were outlined in a story Friday in the student newspaper.
“We’ve partnered with the house on interventions in the past but those measures haven’t really proved sufficient,” she said.
The Harvard Crimson story detailed complaints from Winthrop House staffers about Sullivan’s leadership that went back several years, describing a toxic environment.
Sullivan and his wife, the first African-American faculty deans at Harvard, issued a statement saying they would “take some time to process Harvard’s actions and consider our options,” but did not directly address the accusations by university officials or Winthrop House employees.
“We are surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today. We believed the discussions we were having with high level University representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks,” they wrote. “We are sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time.”
Finals begin at Harvard on Monday. Some of the students who had urged Harvard to remove Sullivan were gratified by the administration’s action.
“Knowing that the university is actually going to listen to us and do something to put an end to this was really relieving,” said sophomore Allison Scharmann, 20, who lives in Winthrop House and is a member of the group Our Harvard Can Do Better.
Danu A.K. Mudannayake, the student who launched the protests over Sullivan’s Weinstein role, said his departure, coming during the #MeToo movement and after the divisive confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will reverberate beyond campus.
“That’s why this win — even if it is localized to our campus — means a lot for a lot of other people. It empowers voices that constantly are criticized,” she said.
Since February, some students have protested against Sullivan, saying his high-profile role defending the leading target of the #MeToo movement was incompatible with his duties as a faculty adviser who lives and works among undergraduates and sets the tone for their college experience.
Sullivan’s defenders pushed back, saying that with their sensitivity to an of-the-moment controversy, students were forsaking the principles of the American justice system.
George J. Leontire, a friend of Sullivan’s who is a lawyer, recently told the Globe that students were unfairly tagging the dean for Weinstein’s alleged crimes, and evoked the “Salem witch trials,” saying anyone associated with #MeToo allegations would be punished, “no matter how they’re connected.”
Mudannayake called such an interpretation “idiocy.”
“Both Sullivan and Leontire do a very good job of making people like myself . . . look like the kind of snowflake-y liberals who want every man to be put in jail for no good reason,” she said.
The ongoing drama led some to question Sullivan’s judgment and leadership — and Winthrop House staffers to reveal that they had questioned it long before the Weinstein controversy. Sullivan and his wife, a lecturer at the law school, live in Winthrop House with their two children, and are responsible for all students and other staff — including resident deans, administrators, and 18 resident tutors.
The Crimson story revealed that, since 2016, more than a dozen Winthrop students and staff had brought concerns about Sullivan and Robinson to Harvard administrators, suggesting they had created a toxic climate in the house. In early 2016 alone, the Crimson reported, three tutors faced threats of dismissal; 13 tutors threatened to quit in protest; and one Winthrop staffer stepped down, allegedly under pressure from Sullivan and Robinson.
Most of the 11 other Harvard residential communities have had one or two house administrators in the decade since Sullivan became a faculty dean, the Crimson reported; Winthrop House has had nine – a turnover that staff attributed to the challenging environment that left some in tears, after being asked to do tasks for the faculty deans beyond their purview, such as personal errands and grocery shopping, according to the article.
Meanwhile the controversy over his defense of Weinstein has spawned disputes between Sullivan’s supporters and critics.
In recent weeks, the angry rift exploded into public view. At one point, students staged an occupation of Winthrop House to “reclaim it as a safe space” for survivors of sexual assault.
A married couple who work as resident tutors in Winthrop House sued the faculty dean of another house alleging she defamed them in e-mails and texts she had circulated about them. The couple also filed a police report over an incident in the Winthrop dining hall with Mudannayake, and Leontire, their lawyer, threatened to file a harassment complaint against her.
In the defamation case, Leontire has subpoenaed five Harvard faculty members or students, including a reporter for the student newspaper from whom he has demanded all communications regarding Sullivan.
The Crimson is resisting the subpoena, saying its reporter is not a party to the case.
Leontire, a friend of Sullivan’s who worked side-by-side with him on the legal team that got former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez acquitted of double murder charges, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Mudannayake said the events show “open retaliation” from Sullivan defenders for her vocal opposition.
Khurana, meanwhile, called the decision to not keep Sullivan and Robinson on as faculty deans “a regrettable situation and a very hard decision to make. I have long admired your Faculty Deans’ commitment to justice and civic engagement, as well as the good work they have done in support of diversity in their House community.”
Sullivan and his wife were the first African-Americans appointed faculty deans in 2009; another African-American dean has been named since that time.
In an interview with the New Yorker in March, Sullivan said that he believes that some of the attacks against him may be racially motivated. In that interview, he also resisted criticizing students for their activism against him, instead faulting the administration for responding to it.
“It’s in the nature of students to protest,” he told the New Yorker. “The adults in the room, however, do not have to react in the way that they have.”