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Harvard dean ousted after Weinstein case to challenge school on academic freedom from within

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. represented disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein before stepping away from the case.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. represented disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein before stepping away from the case.(Richard Drew/Associated Press/File)

The Harvard Law professor whose planned legal defense of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein caused a campus furor that cost him a faculty dean position wants to use the episode to restore academic freedom, he said Thursday evening.

In his first remarks since he lost the deanship last month, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. said he envisions creating an institution that could work within and beyond Harvard to reform academia and restore reasoned discourse on campuses.

It was unclear exactly what shape that might take. But with his wife, fellow Harvard Law professor Stephanie Robinson, he launched an online video to begin to marshal support. The couple said they received overwhelming support from scholars and students across the country who thought Harvard caved to pressure from students over any association with Weinstein, the former Hollywood film producer.

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“Our firm belief is that universities are doing a disservice to its students to allow them to substitute emotion for rigor,” said Sullivan. “And part of our goal is to recenter the intellectual project at the university. It’s not just Harvard. We see this as a much more systemic problem. To the degree that we can use what happened with us to impact and change the ways in which universities are educating its students, then we’re happy to do that.”

Students began protesting in January when the news broke that Sullivan would be part of Weinstein’s defense team. They argued that Sullivan’s role as a live-in father figure to some 400 students in student housing conflicted with his role defending Weinstein, whose case was a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, and they questioned how he would field future complaints of sexual assault.

But many academics, including those at Harvard Law, rose to Sullivan’s defense, saying students were failing to appreciate the role of a lawyer and the need for due process for anyone accused.

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The situation devolved into numerous legal grievances, with two adult tutors who worked for Sullivan suing another house’s faculty dean for defamation, tapping as their attorney George Leontire, a friend of Sullivan’s and a fellow criminal defense lawyer with whom Sullivan won an acquittal for former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez.

Leontire threatened to file a Title IX claim against the student who started the protests against Sullivan and subpoenaed a student newspaper reporter for any communications involving Sullivan. By May, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana declared the situation “untenable” and announced Sullivan and Robinson would not return as faculty deans.

Sullivan and Robinson said on Thursday that they were unaware of the related lawsuit before it was filed and did not play a role in orchestrating actions against their critics.

Robinson, who lost her position as faculty dean along with her husband, denounced “political correctness” on campuses, saying they heard from faculty, administrators, and students across the country “who really see that there is something that has run amok and want to work to give voice to it, to identify it, to raise volume on it and to work to change it.”

The couple would not discuss any legal settlement with Harvard. Robinson said: “We have resolved our dispute with Harvard. But we feel that the decision Harvard made was the wrong decision for the wrong reason and went the wrong way, period.”

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In a statement Thursday night, Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said, “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 at Winthrop House.”

Sullivan is no longer representing Weinstein, due to a change in the timing of the trial and a conflict with his teaching schedule. He gave notice to the court that he was stepping down from the case the day before the dean announced he would not have him back as faculty dean of Winthrop House. Sullivan said Thursday that he did not explain to Khurana that he had already stepped down from the trial.

“No. Because my resignation from the Harvey Weinstein case should never have been a condition precedent keeping the deanship,” Sullivan said. “Principle is principle.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.