Something is rotten in the state of Massachusetts. Several months ago, a misguided and intellectually flimsy activist movement at Harvard ousted a famed law professor, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. from his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House. His offense? Practicing law. Harvard College’s acquiescent administrators have set a dangerous precedent for universities responding to student pressure.
A former public defender and Yale Law School professor, Sullivan and his wife, law instructor Stephanie Robinson, became Harvard’s first ever black faculty deans in 2009. Like many of his Law School colleagues, Sullivan combines teaching duties with an active legal practice — in his case, high profile, high-stakes criminal defense, along with representation of underprivileged individuals and communities. He successfully represented football star and accused triple-murderer Aaron Hernandez, and he represented Michael Brown’s family in their suit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri.
This was not a problem for Sullivan until 2019. In January, he joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal team, and all hell broke loose.
Students protested at Winthrop House and organized a sit-in in the dining hall. Vandals graffitied “Down With Sullivan” and other slogans on its walls. Over 300 students signed a petition calling for his removal on the grounds that his very presence was somehow “trauma-inducing.”
It did not take long for Harvard’s administration to cave. In May, Dean Rakesh Khurana announced that Sullivan and Robinson would be ousted from their faculty dean positions. A widely admired advocate of civil liberties was publicly humiliated by his own university.
I discussed the Sullivan case with Rory Little, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law and a visiting professor this year at Yale Law School. Professor Little studies legal ethics and has written about moral guidelines for law professors who practice. He told me that a foundational concept in criminal defense is that “clients cannot be attributed to the lawyer.” Attorneys are distinct entities from their clients, no matter how notorious or repulsive the crime. Nobody would or should say that they feel “unsafe” around practitioners at a criminal law legal clinic, but this was the accusation leveled against Sullivan.
Professor Little noted that criminal lawyers in this country have a long tradition of defending “unsavory” types. After several other attorneys refused, John Adams defended the eight British soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre. His decision, he later wrote, was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.” In a free and fair society, a strong legal defense is always a public good.
Moreover, Professor Little noted that Sullivan’s defense work benefits Harvard. Besides the prestige of being affiliated with a star defense attorney, his experience makes him a better teacher. Practicing law professors, Little told me, should be “applauded.”
These views are not fringe, nor are they controversial to anyone familiar with legal practice. That’s why 52 of Sullivan’s colleagues at Harvard Law School signed an open letter in the Boston Globe in his defense. They wrote, “We call upon our university’s administration to recognize that such legal advocacy in service of constitutional principles is not only fully consistent with Sullivan’s roles of law professor and dean of an undergraduate house, but also one of the many possible models that resident deans can provide in teaching, mentoring, and advising students.”
The outrage over Sullivan’s defense of Weinstein was related to the emergence of the #MeToo movement. But the Harvard protests actually undermined the credibility of what has been otherwise been a successful and necessary reckoning of powerful men’s misconduct. Conservative commentators have accused #MeToo activists of discarding the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Allowing the very best defense lawyers, like Sullivan, to defend Weinstein would dispel all of these critiques and strengthen the #MeToo movement. Instead, the Harvard protestors proved their critics right.
It is not just these students who are at fault for Harvard’s grave error. Their administrators — tasked with bringing reason and “Veritas” to Cambridge — caved to the misjudgement of their students. College deans have a responsibility to respond to the needs of their student bodies, but not to their unreasonable demands.
You might be wondering what this case — or my diatribe about it — has to do with Yale. For better or for worse, Yale and Harvard are similar universities who share a close relationship. Winthrop House is the “sister” of Davenport College, whose Head is also a law professor. Activism movements in Cambridge often influence those in New Haven; administrative decisions here set precedent for Harvard’s. What will happen when one of our law professors decides to represent an unpopular client? Yale must ensure that its faculty have the freedom to practice their vocation. Our administrators should be exemplary rather than expedient when making difficult decisions. Let’s hope that they are.
Isaiah Schrader is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. His column runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at email@example.com .