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Outgoing Harvard faculty dean to leave Harvey Weinstein defense team

Harvard Law Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. at court in New York last month.
Harvard Law Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. at court in New York last month. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

For months, Harvard College activists have been pressuring Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. to choose between his dual roles — as a father figure to hundreds of Harvard students, among whom he lives and works as a faculty dean, and as legal counsel to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement’s most notorious alleged villain.

Now, Sullivan has lost both positions.

Sullivan, an esteemed Harvard Law School professor, confirmed Monday that he had resigned from Weinstein’s defense team late Friday — just hours before Harvard announced that Sullivan and his wife would not be reappointed residential faculty deans after their term ends June 30. Sullivan had e-mailed the judge in the case about his decision, Weinstein spokesman Juda Engelmayer said.

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As with all matters in this high-stakes showdown, the motives and reasons are in dispute.

Sullivan, who had defended his representation of Weinstein against student criticism for months, suddenly said his busy teaching schedule would interfere with Weinstein’s rape and sexual assault trial, which is expected to begin in September.

But a Weinstein spokesman took a swipe at Harvard administrators, suggesting they had buckled under the pressure of a misplaced scandal. “Mr. Sullivan believed that Mr. Weinstein deserved a vigorous defense, and it is a sad moment for us all right now,” Engelmayer said in a statement. “We, as a country, have now reached the point when a Harvard lawyer and professor cannot serve his duty to, and belief in, the law and defend a person who may be deemed unpopular or unworthy of a legal defense by segments of the public.”

Many Sullivan defenders, legal specialists, and other observers echoed those sentiments, calling Harvard’s decision tantamount to caving in to a student mob.

Harvard Law school professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz called Harvard’s decision not to reappoint Sullivan as faculty dean “the worst violation of academic freedom during my 55 year association with Harvard.”

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“The new McCarthyism comes to Harvard,” Dershowitz tweeted.

The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers urged Harvard to reverse the decision, noting that a defendant’s right to legal representation of his choice is enshrined in the United States Constitution.

“A defense lawyer should never face adverse consequences for representing a person accused of a crime, no matter how reprehensible the crime or repugnant the person may be,” association president Derege Demissie said in a statement. “Harvard should uphold the tradition set by one of its most distinguished graduates, John Adams, who defended the British soldiers accused of murder during the Boston Massacre.”

But a Harvard spokeswoman maintained that Sullivan was “absolutely not” leaving because of the outrage surrounding the Weinstein case. The angry dispute had spiraled out of control in recent months — with Sullivan allies filing a defamation suit, police report, and subpoenas against his perceived detractors, including students. Meanwhile, a college-initiated “climate review” of Winthop House, the residential house Sullivan leads, produced serious concerns. A Harvard Crimson story last week revealed numerous students and staffers had raised complaints about Sullivan’s leadership to the administration in recent years and described the climate at the house as toxic.

“The college’s decision not to renew the faculty deans was informed by a number of considerations,” spokeswoman Rachael Dane said. “Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college. The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate and the noticeable absence of faculty dean leadership during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. The college deemed this situation in the house to be untenable.”

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Among the details cited in the Harvard Crimson story: that Sullivan had “openly berated” a staffer who worked in Winthrop House, accusing her of organizing students against him; that there was a revolving door of staffers; and that, over the past several years, many had already unsuccessfully raised concerns about the dean’s leadership with the administration. Eleven current and former staff members told the Crimson they had experienced “a climate of hostility and suspicion” under Sullivan’s leadership.

Last week, undergraduates occupied Winthrop’s dining hall to reclaim the house as a safe space.

In a statement provided Monday, Sullivan said that he was withdrawing from the trial, postponed to September, due to an “unresolvable conflict” with his Harvard Law teaching obligations.

“Today the court approved my request to withdraw from representing Harvey Weinstein in his pending criminal trial,” Sullivan said in a statement. “The rescheduling of the trial to begin September 9, 2019, created an unresolvable conflict between continuing the representation and my teaching obligations at the Harvard Law School. Though I stated my September unavailability in the defense motion to continue the matter, the Court was unable to accommodate a later trial date.”

He also said he would continue to be available to Weinstein’s trial team for advice and consultation. And he pointed to the controversy that his representation caused.

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“My decision to represent Mr. Weinstein sparked considerable discussion and activism around issues of sexual violence, the appropriate role and responsibilities of Harvard and its faculty in addressing those issues, and the tension between protecting the rights of those criminally accused and validating the experience of those who are survivors of sexual violence,” Sullivan said in the statement. “My representation of those accused of sexual assault does not speak to my personal views on any of these matters.”

The statement Sullivan issued Saturday made no mention of his planned departure from Weinstein’s team but noted that and he and his wife were “surprised and dismayed” by the news that Harvard would not reappoint them as faculty deans.

“We believed the discussions we were having with high level University representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks,” Sullivan wrote in the statement.

Meanwhile, actress Rose McGowan, who has accused Weinstein of rape, scolded Sullivan on Twitter for a conflict of legal interest. He had signed on to represent Weinstein after representing her on a charge of drug possession case in Virginia.

“That’s what you get for representing my rapist at the same time as me. Ethics count in this world,” McGowan tweeted on Monday. “I’m grateful to the students at Harvard that made this happen.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert .