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The raging controversy over Ronald Sullivan, Harvey Weinstein, and Harvard, explained

A college dorm getting a new top administrator managed to touch on practically every hot-button issue in the world.

Justice Department Sides With Asian-Americans Students That Are Suing Harvard Over Admissions Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Next fall, many thousands of college students across America will arrive in dormitories that are run by someone different from the person who was in charge the previous year. This is typically an unremarkable turn of events, but not for the residents of Harvard’s Winthrop House.

Specifically at issue is Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard Law School professor, and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, an instructor at the law school, who currently serve as faculty deans of Winthrop House — an academic-sounding title that in reality is kind of more like being the head RA of an undergraduate dorm. Sullivan’s decision to take a job as a member of Harvey Weinstein’s legal team set into motion a chain of events that led to the university’s decision not to renew their contract for next year.

Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein led to protests, a sit-in, an official review of the “climate” at Winthrop House, and eventually a decision not to bring back Sullivan and Robinson next year.

On one level, this was about the university deciding to replace an unpopular dorm administrator with someone the students like better. But for a lot of media pundits, this was an attack on one of the most sacred values of academic freedom and the constitutional order itself.

“Harvard College appears to have ratified the proposition that it is inappropriate for a faculty dean to defend a person reviled by a substantial number of students,” wrote Randall Kennedy, a fellow Harvard Law professor, in a May 15 New York Times op-ed. “A position that would disqualify a long list of stalwart defenders of civil liberties and civil rights, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.”

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic slammed Harvard’s “shameful capitulation to popular passions.” The conservative New York Post chimed in with an editorial slamming the decision to “appease absurd protests.” The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers condemned Sullivan’s dismissal, as did the libertarian magazine Reason’s campus political correctness correspondent Robby Soave, Slate jurisprudence columnist Lara Bazelon, and the Harvard Black Law Students Association.

Much of this seems to me to involve an unsound slippage between the real constitutional principle that every defendant is entitled to a vigorous defense and the nonexistent principle that residential dorm administrators are entitled to take on controversial side jobs without it impacting how they are viewed by students. But perhaps more remarkable than the contents of the controversy is its very existence, as a tempest in one relatively small corner of a university becomes a national controversy about political correctness, criminal justice, sexual harassment, race, and countless other issues.

A “faculty dean” isn’t really a dean

At least some of the heat around this topic stems from a measure of confusion among the general public as to what the job of faculty dean amounts to. It sounds like a lofty academic post but actually is closer to being a kind of glorified RA — though even this is arguably an overstatement of the role.

The vast majority of non-freshmen at Harvard live in one of 13 dorms called “houses.” Each house is structured as a little community with its own cafeteria, social events, etc. A house also features a number of so-called “residential tutors” who are typically graduate students who live in the dorm, loosely supervise the undergrads, and are on hand to serve as advisers on academic matters, and things like applications to law school or to various fellowships. Supervising the whole tutor operation is an Allston Burr resident dean (often a postdoc or adjunct faculty member of some kind); there is also a house administrator (who actually runs things on a day-to-day basis) and a building manager.

On top of all that sits what until recently was called the “house master” — a tenured professor who lives in the dorm, is loosely in charge of the whole thing, and who in a practical sense mostly performs a kind of symbolic constitutional monarch role while the resident dean, the administrator, and the building manager take care of boring business. A few years ago, however, in an earlier outbreak of campus excess, the title house master was deemed to be too redolent of slavery so the school made up the new title of faculty dean.

This is all a lot of tedious Harvard minutiae, but it’s important to the story. The title superficially gives the impression that Sullivan lost a high-level academic post over the controversy, in a manner that would raise a lot of questions about academic freedom. What he actually lost was a side gig whose primary responsibilities involve undergraduate social life.

There are important aspects of any university where it’s critical to not leave the students in charge of the big decisions. But the specific role of faculty dean essentially requires you to be popular with the students. Harvard assigns freshmen to houses at random, and while it’s technically permitted for upper-class students to switch houses or live off campus, both are fairly strongly discouraged. A house is not a democracy per se, but in a practical sense, maintaining the confidence of the students is a primary job requirement.

Lawyers don’t want to be responsible for their clients

Given that backdrop, it’s probably unwise in general for faculty deans to involve themselves in any kind of controversial activity.

Of course it would be silly for professors (or, indeed, human beings) in general to avoid all forms of controversial activity. But that’s in part just to say that not everyone is cut out to be the supervisor of a community of randomly assigned students. Like most American universities, however, Harvard is not very well-managed both because its structure is highly decentralized and because asking professors to be deeply involved in the management of a large and complicated institution is a terrible idea. Consequently, there don’t appear to be any actual policies on the books regarding faculty deans’ outside work, guidelines about involving themselves in public controversies, or any formal process through which students can vote “no confidence” in a dean and get rid of him.

The legal profession itself has a strong belief that there is an important principle by which it is wrong to subject lawyers to social sanction or strong moral criticism for working on behalf of bad people.

The core idea here is that the Anglo-American adversarial legal system requires both sides to every dispute to have competent legal counsel in order to function effectively. Sometimes a person who “everyone knows” is guilty actually turns out to be innocent. And sometimes a person who is factually guilty is also the victim of misconduct by the police or prosecutors. Making sure that the innocent are not convicted, and that misconduct on the part of the state is exposed, helps protect and defend the rights of all people.

What’s more, even among those who really are guilty of something or other, there is a range of available punishments. And, again, making sure that everyone gets the chance to have a vigorous case for mercy heard helps protect everyone’s rights. If we hold lawyers personally accountable for everything their clients may have done, the whole logic of the system begins to fall apart.

On the other hand, there can be something a bit pat and convenient about this.

Sullivan isn’t a public defender who’s simply taking the clients assigned to him. He’s not even a full-time criminal defense lawyer who just takes whichever clients happen to come through his door. He’s a busy guy who has classes to teach, a dorm to administer, and various other demands on his time. While it’s obviously true that all criminal defendants have a right to an attorney, it’s equally obvious that criminal defendants don’t have a particular right to Ronald Sullivan’s services.

It would be genuinely outrageous to condemn a public defender for catching some heinous clients in the course of pursuing an honorable vocation. But as Sullivan is obviously picking and choosing his clients — and, in Weinstein’s case, getting well paid for his time — it doesn’t seem unreasonable to draw some inferences based on his choices.

Sullivan’s defenders are making a very strong claim that to cast any kind of aspersion on any choice any defense lawyer makes is going to undermine the right to counsel. But the fact that, in practice, having a criminal defense lawyer be resident dean of Winthrop House was uncontroversial until he took on Weinstein suggests the slope may not really slip this way. And given the nature of the resident dean job and the ongoing social dialogue around sexual assault and sexual harassment, undergraduates had some real reasons to wonder where Sullivan stands.

There’s been a big #MeToo backlash

Ever since the public exposure of Weinstein’s conduct launched the modern #MeToo movement, there’s been a considerable public backlash.

As early as November 2017, Masha Gessen was warning of a “sex panic.” Louis C.K. was back performing comedy last summer. Mark Halperin’s friends in the media are actively trying to rehabilitate him and his public image. Articles questioning whether #MeToo has “gone too far” can be found in the Atlantic, US News, the New York Times, and many other places. Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, Donald Trump is in the White House, and Joe Biden is on top of the 2016 Democratic Party primary polls despite Lucy Flores’s complaints and HR experts’ consensus that Biden’s touchy ways would be out of bounds in a normal workplace.

A typical talking point in all these backlash narratives is that so-and-so’s conduct was not nearly as bad as Weinstein’s — something that’s almost always true.

But all this has revealed that there’s not only a culture of silence around some powerful men’s misconduct but some very real underlying disagreements about what kind of conduct is worthy of severe punishment. Since there is evidently a lot of disagreement about this topic, and since sexual assault and sexual harassment claims fall under a faculty dean’s purview, it seems at least reasonable to wonder both where Sullivan stands on this and if his interest in representing Weinstein does not, in fact, reflect an underlying sense that the #MeToo backlash is fundamentally correct.

Attorneys, of course, are committed to the view that this is an invalid inference to draw. Sullivan was part of the legal team that represented former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in his murder cases, and there was no on-campus objection to that. But that, again, is at least in part because there is a really firm social consensus in the United States that murder is wrong. To infer from Sullivan’s representation of Hernandez that he’s pro-murder would be to attribute something outlandish to him, whereas to infer from Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein that he agrees with many op-ed writers, cable news talking heads, comedy show bookers, and others that today’s young women have become excessively puritanical in their view of sexual harassment is far less of a stretch.

On the other hand, while everyone off campus seems comfortable discussing this almost entirely through the Weinstein prism, on campus, there’s another narrative.

There were apparently other issues with Sullivan’s work

A report by the Harvard Crimson on May 10 rounded up a whole bunch of complaints about the work of Sullivan and his wife as house leaders that had little to do with Weinstein.

The article featured a statement by 11 current and former staffers of Winthrop House that said:

during our time as tutors at Winthrop House, we experienced a workplace climate of hostility and suspicion generated by the Faculty Deans, Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson. Although we recognize that not all tutors shared our experience, we do believe that many tutors and staff members were subject to improper and antagonistic behavior by the Faculty Deans.

The Crimson noted the revolving door of administrators at Winthrop House — 10 in a decade, when the average number of administrators at the other 11 houses in the same period was between one and two.

“Four former Winthrop staff members said they saw House Administrators cry while on the job,” according to the Crimson, “sometimes after being told to do things they believed fell out of their purview, including personal errands and tasks for the faculty deans such as grocery shopping.”

It somewhat strains credulity to think that the university would have failed to renew Sullivan and Robinson’s contracts absent the Weinstein controversy. At the same time, despite the outside portrayal, this is neither a case of a prominent legal academic losing his faculty position over taking on an unpopular client nor a case of a beloved administrator losing his dorm administration job over taking on an unpopular client. Sullivan continues to be a professor in good standing at Harvard Law School, and seems to have been deposed at least in part because outside the four walls of the Weinstein controversy, he and Robinson were not running a particularly smooth-sailing ship.

As a narrow matter of college administration, it’s hard to see why you would keep someone in place who was generating so many complaints. But this particular issue sits at the nexus of so many different fault lines that it’s generally not seen through a narrow matter of college administration.

There’s a race angle here too

On April 1, the Harvard Black Law Students Association blasted the launch of the climate review process.

This largely took the form of the idea, common in legal circles, that criticizing Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein is wrongheaded because “the right to legal counsel in criminal trials is a necessary aspect of our criminal legal system” and “it would be unconscionable to argue that those accused of sexual assault should not have access to counsel in the adversarial system against the legal power of the state and US government.”

But they also leveled the more specific charge that the university was undertaking an “outsized response” to undergraduate complaints while arguing that there were “racist undertones” to this response, noting that graffiti placed on Sullivan’s home evoked “images of Jim Crow era tactics to control Black communities and the use of such vandalism to this day by white supremacists.”

The larger backdrop here is that despite featuring a generally progressive political climate, Harvard has a very low number of black faculty members. Sullivan was the first black faculty dean in Harvard’s history. And it’s relatively difficult to find black professors to appoint to this kind of position because only 8 percent of the university’s tenured faculty are black or Latino. Harvard’s student body has grown rapidly more diverse in the 21st century, and while the tenured faculty has grown more diverse as well, change there has been slower in part because turnover is much slower among tenured professors than among undergraduates.

In the short term, however, the changes result in a growing mismatch between a more diverse student body and a not-so-diverse set of senior faculty members, inevitably raising the stakes when one of the relatively small number of black tenured professors comes under scrutiny.

The BLSA also contends that the scrutiny on Sullivan serves to distract from systemic issues in the university’s treatment of sexual harassment allegations. They note that the university’s 2015 task force on sexual assault reported that 16 percent of graduating women reported “nonconsensual completed or attempted penetration involving physical force, incapacitation or both,” and that since that time, there’s been no evidence of a decline.

“Professor Sullivan” the BSLM writes, “should not be made a scapegoat for the University’s general failing to address pressing and prevalent issues of sexual violence.”

Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, one of the most accomplished and celebrated black academics in the country, was also recently forced out of some roles due to sexual misconduct allegations. The two cases are not related in any literal way, but the juxtaposition of the two likely contributes to a sense that black men are being specifically targeted for systemic issues. And in many ways, every aspect of this story keeps coming back to the reality that views of a specific case are being made to bear the immense weight of contrasting perspectives on huge social issues.

Nobody can see the trees for the forest

If you stop and think about it for a minute, the sheer amount of attention that’s been paid to the question of who will be in charge of a particular college dorm next year is borderline absurd. Virtually nobody who is not a professional university administrator typically gives a moment’s thought to the question of optimal selection of dorm officers at colleges they don’t attend. And the question of who will or will not be faculty dean of Winthrop House over the next decade has virtually no importance for anyone who doesn’t live in Winthrop House and, frankly, not that much importance for the people who do live there.

But the question of whether on-campus political correctness is the bleeding edge of an incipient left-wing totalitarianism, as Jonathan Chait wrote at New York magazine a few years ago and as many center- and center-right thinkers appear to believe, is pretty important.

By the same token, the stakes in whether the United States is awash in impunity for sexual assault or suffering from an out-of-control #MeToo witch hunt, are very important.

And the tension between growing progressive interest in criminal justice reform and a growing progressive interest in seeing sexual harassment caught and punished more severely is very real.

As a question of academic administration, the Sullivan case actually admits a pretty easy resolution: This was an unfortunate sequence of events that could be prevented in the future by the university having some kind of clear guidelines regarding freelance work by faculty members who also take on secondary jobs as dorm administrators. But likely few people care about a literal question of academic administration.

To people who come to the story with a strong sense that out-of-control college students are a threat to free society, the Sullivan case is a perfect example of that. To those of us who come to the story with a strong sense that the media is blowing campus controversies way out of proportion to their actual significance, the Sullivan case is a perfect example of that. And whether you feel African Americans are marginalized on elite campuses despite their progressive rhetoric, that #MeToo has become a massive exercise in overreach, or that the self-interest of high-end lawyers has become a toxic influence on American politics, the Sullivan case is a perfect example of all that as well.

Thus, perhaps most of all, it’s a perfect example of the extent to which the modern-day nationalized media climate tends to subsume all particular events under the mighty steamroller of big-picture political narratives.