Harvard row prompts call for clarity on administrator freedom

Dean was removed following opposition to his role in Harvey Weinstein’s legal team

May 20, 2019

Universities have been called to clarify the expectations and limitations of academic administrators in the wake of Harvard University’s decision to oust a dean who was on Harvey Weinstein’s legal defence team.

Harvard has faced intense backlash after announcing earlier this month that Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson would not be continuing as faculty deans of Winthrop House when their terms ended on 30 June.

Professor Sullivan, Jesse Climenko clinical professor of law and director of the university’s Criminal Justice Institute, had been the target of student protests since he announced in January that he would be on former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s defence team.

Students claimed that Professor Sullivan’s decision to represent someone accused of sexual abuse disqualified him from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students. Professor Sullivan left Weinstein’s team the day before Harvard’s decision, according to ABC News.

However, reports in The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, claim that there have been longstanding concerns about leadership at Winthrop House, one of 12 undergraduate residential houses at the institution.

Jeffrey Sachs, lecturer in the department of politics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said that Harvard and other institutions needed to “think more carefully about what academic freedom entails”.

“Many faculty occupy administrative posts that straddle the academic-student relations line. Many more are being encouraged by their institutions to engage with the public online, in talks and in print,” he said.

“These new levels of exposure create real vulnerabilities for faculty and the potential for blowback. Universities need to be explicit with faculty about precisely how much security they have, should they say or do something that proves controversial.”

Jeffrey Flier, distinguished service professor and Higginson professor of physiology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that, if Harvard wants faculty deans to “include prominent academics from diverse fields of study, as opposed to counsellors and therapists, some or all of these faculty deans will from time to time express opinions and have roles that some students will disagree with or find politically or morally objectionable”.

“The administration must clarify this: when such unavoidable situations occur, and some students claim emotional harm as a result, will they view this as cause to question or terminate the dean’s tenure,” Professor Flier said.

“I would see such a view as deeply flawed. It diminishes the intellectual discourse that should characterise a great university community, diminishes the capacity of faculty deans to be role models for accomplishment and intellectual bravery, and projects students as children needing protection from dangerous ideas rather than young adults who must learn to grapple effectively with complex ideas and values that are not uniform within the Harvard community, and will not be uniform in their post-Harvard lives.”

A Harvard spokeswoman said that the decision not to renew the faculty deans was “informed by a number of considerations”, including “serious and numerous” concerns from students about “the climate in Winthrop House”.

“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,” the spokeswoman said.

She added that “the role and term of faculty deans are explicitly clear to those who are appointed to the position”.


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Reader's comments (5)

What about the more fundamental concern that everyone, irrespective of the offences of which they have been accused, is entitled to legal representation? If Harvard is turning out students incapable of recognising that basic right, it is very worrying indeed.
It is indeed extraordinary that this basic tenant of law was disregarded. Harvard does have a Law School. What does it teach?
Like it or lump it people in their early twenties are not experienced enough to avoid manipulation, that is also something that is tricky for older and the more experienced to unravel. However they do that in the workplace each and every day. Without the experienced person engaged to do their best for a case any case, we will not know whether experience has prevailed or mob rule fuelled by social media witch hunting has prevailed. What message has Harvard just sent - assuming this is true of course.
Once again a tiny but noisy and deeply intolerant minority get their way.
I think one of the things that is being completely overlooked here is that although the faculty member does cross over to administrative lines in a lot of universities, the two are separate. This is apples and oranges. Harvey Weinstein, as heinous and awful human being as he has turned out to be is still entitled to the most vigorous defense possible (and it doesn't get more vigorous than a Harvard law professor). Under US law he is guaranteed legal counsel which is competent, vigorous, the best you can get, etc. On the other hand the lawyer representing him, as has always been the case since the beginning of the US jurisprudence system, cannot and should not be penalized for having represented that particular client, regardless of the crime or public opinion of the client. It's an absolute violation of the Constitution. It is certainly a violation of Miranda. It's actually unthinkable that Harvard would take this action. The message Harvard is sending is, "We are Harvard, we're above the law, and we don't care about anything except our own tender little feelings. We need to draw in more students and get more tuition income next year, so we're going to act in this way right now to placate these little babies who seemingly have difficulty figuring out how to feel and can't deal with those feelings. This is very, very sad. And a real indictment on Harvard.