One of the attorneys Harvey Weinstein has enlisted as he prepares to defend himself against sexual assault accusations has several high-profile posts at Harvard University, including overseeing a residential house for undergraduates.
Some students are not happy about it.
Ronald Sullivan, one of the four attorneys representing Weinstein, is the faculty dean of the Winthrop House. He also teaches law at the university and directs the school’s criminal justice institute.
Many students take issue with Sullivan overseeing a residential house as he represents one of the country’s most notorious alleged sexual offenders. About 40 students wore tape over their mouths and held signs reading “Remove Sullivan,” “Do Your Job” and “Down with the Dean” during protests against him this week, The Boston Globe reported.
“He has a responsibility to his students to ensure they’re living in a safe space where they feel comfortable approaching him with issues of their own sexual assault experiences,” 21-year-old junior Danu Mudannayake, who helped organize the protests, told HuffPost.
Winthrop describes itself as the Harvard equivalent of Hogwarts’ Gryffindor house, with a lion mascot and famous grads from the Kennedy family. In his official capacity as a faculty dean, Sullivan is tasked with “set[ting] the tone for the House” and advising its young residents. Deans may sometimes need to refer students to Harvard’s Title IX Office, which handles sexual and gender-based harassment.
Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response posted a special message to its website addressing the Sullivan issue, encouraging any student to reach out if they wished to speak with a counselor about their concerns.
Mudannayake said she had had a “really great conversation” with Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana about the students’ concerns on Wednesday. She said the school was taking appropriate steps to address the problem, but didn’t rule out additional protests.
Weinstein gave his legal team a shake-up after attorney Benjamin Brafman bowed out. The ex-Hollywood mogul faces five charges relating to alleged incidents of sexual assault in New York state; his trial is set to start in the spring.
When the news broke on campus that Sullivan had joined Weinstein’s team, the attorney defended himself in an email to students on Jan. 25.
“I shall take this opportunity to say a word to our community about the nature of criminal defense in the United States,” Sullivan wrote in the email, which HuffPost has reviewed.
Defendants are “cloaked with the presumption of innocence,” he said in the 1,200-word missive. He emphasized the importance of judicial process, cited his past efforts to help people who had been wrongfully convicted and included a link to a TED Talk he gave.
Sullivan acknowledged that some defendants are publicly seen as “vile” but argued that “[i]t is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else ― perhaps even more important.”
Sullivan encouraged those with concerns to come speak with him directly. He did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.
The Weinstein defense isn’t the only controversy the attorney has waded into, however. Sullivan also raised eyebrows for criticizing Harvard’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against economics professor Roland Fryer.
The New York Times reported in December that Fryer ― who once earned himself a MacArthur “genius grant” ― was under investigation for fostering a hostile work environment for women.
In response, Sullivan said in an interview that “this process has been deeply flawed and deeply unfair. ... It shows what the current [Me Too] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce.”
A Change.org petition Mudannayake created, titled “Students for the Removal of Winthrop Dean Sullivan,” had 185 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.