Harvard University’s recent announcement that law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr would no longer remain faculty dean of one of its undergraduate houses raises profound questions for all university senior leaders.
The reasons for Harvard’s decision are complex, involving long-standing complaints about Sullivan’s administration of the house. But the recent focus on his leadership was precipitated by an outcry over his time on the legal defence team of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Some members of the Harvard community felt that Sullivan’s willingness to defend Weinstein, who has been accused of multiple sexual crimes, compromised his ability to provide a safe, supportive environment for students. Sullivan’s advocates, on the other hand, have said that although Sullivan no longer represents Weinstein, his willingness to do so is testament to the fact that even people accused of heinous offences still have the right to the best legal defence they can access. Some have even cited John Adams, a Harvard alum, who, in 1770, defended the British soldiers accused of carrying out the Boston Massacre, despite his personal sympathies for American independence.
The Sullivan controversy highlights the challenge leaders of schools and universities face as they navigate the conversation around difficult issues. As the dean of a school of public health, I have long pondered when and how academic leaders should take public positions on issues they feel are important. To my thinking, they must do so. But Sullivan’s case raises the fraught question of what happens when that position runs counter to the views held by many in the institution (since choosing to represent Weinstein has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, to amount to taking a position).