More about Ronald Sullivan and his unfair treatment by Harvard University

Yesterday I described the situation of Ronald Sullivan, a professor of law at Harvard University who is also resident head (“faculty dean”) of Winthrop House, an undergraduate residence hall where students live for their first three years in college. Like many law professors, Sullivan has a private practice, as well as a long history of social-activist legal work. These include, as the New Yorker interview below describes, “director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and previous [service] as the director of the Washington, D.C., Public Defender Service. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he helped free thousands of Louisianans who had been incarcerated without due process.”

He’s also the first black faculty dean at Harvard and has other social-justice cred for defending minorities (including the family of Michael Brown) and women.

None of this mattered after Sullivan signed on as a member of Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. Students protested and called for his resignation and firing, and, to Harvard’s eternal shame, the University launched a “climate review” of Winthrop House, an action that might result in Sullivan’s being booted from the house. Two deans also seemed to take the side of the students, including Rakesh Khurana, Dean of the College and an apparently clueless man who was behind Harvard’s policy of punishing both men and women who belong to single-sex organizations not affiliated with Harvard.

Like many criminal-defense lawyers, Sullivan defends people on all sides of the spectrum, including people, like Weinstein, who are accused of odious crimes. That’s par for the course, as everyone deserves a defense, and a vigorous defense is essential in keeping our legal system strong. This seems like common sense to me, and I can’t find anything to criticize in Sullivan’s decision. (As I said, I have worked as an expert witness for people accused of assault, rape, and murder, though I did it for free.) Some readers disagreed; more about that below.

At any rate, 52 law professors at Harvard, including 11 women, wrote to the Boston Globe supporting Sullivan and criticizing any attempt by Harvard to punish him for working for Weinstein; click on the screenshot below (a list of the 52 signatories is here).

One excerpt:

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 university owes a robust response to allegations of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. We respect students’ right to protest professor Sullivan’s choice of clients. But we view any pressure by Harvard’s administration for him to resign as faculty dean of Winthrop, because of his representation or speaking on behalf of clients, as inconsistent with the university’s commitment to the freedom to defend ideas, however unpopular.

Greg Mayer and others called my attention to Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Sullivan that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker (click on screenshot below for free access). Sullivan is understandably reluctant to discuss the details of Weinstein’s case or of his own involvement, but he does make some revealing and enlightening statements, including his view that Harvard is going after him because he’s an African-American. I’ve put some excepts from the interview below.

Here Sullivan intimates that he got involved in this case at least partly because of legal issues—ones that he can’t describe (that is understandable as it may bear on Weinstein’s defense). Chotiner’s questions are in bold.

Why did you decide to represent Harvey Weinstein?

I have been a criminal-defense lawyer since I started as a public defender in Washington, D.C., in the mid-nineties. I represent any number of people charged with crimes across the country.

Is there some reason you chose him? I imagine you get a lot of opportunities.

I had some discussions with lawyers who represented Mr. Weinstein and then had a discussion with Mr. Weinstein. As a result of those discussions, I decided that this case was sufficiently important to the rule of law that I decided to take it on.

It was something about its importance to the rule of law that you feel like you can’t get into? Is that what you’re saying?


Here Sullivan makes the point that despite his wealth, Weinstein is still at a disadvantage in terms of legal resources:

Do you think that is true even with white, rich, powerful defendants who are unpopular? Do you think they are still at a disadvantage?

Absolutely, because they walk into the court with the presumption of guilt, as opposed to the presumption of innocence. And it is important to note that, even with rich defendants, their resources pale in comparison to the resources of the government, which has an entire prosecutorial office and law enforcement at its disposal. Even rich people are at a resource disadvantage walking in, so the popular mythology that you can buy justice really doesn’t apply in the criminal context.

Here is Sullivan’s response to Chotiner when asked if he has rethought his decision to take on Weinstein as a client after Harvard students protested. This, I think, is the definitive response to those students who call for Sullivan’s resignation because he can’t deal with them empathically or makes them feel “unsafe”. The emphasis below is mine:

I do recognize that some students are genuinely upset with the decision to take the case. They are concerned with the allegations that are lodged against my client, and they are concerned that this will somehow impact the atmosphere at Winthrop House. Those are the major concerns. I should say, even more precisely, some students are concerned that people will be less inclined to speak about sexual assault in the House. I take any genuine student concern very seriously, even if those such concerns do not represent the majority of students in the House. It’s an important voice, and it’s one that I’ve listened to and continue listening to.

As a professor, I am, at the root, a teacher. Part of my response has been to acknowledge the genuine feelings of some of my students and encourage an open, free, frank, robust conversation about issues regarding sexual assault, but also issues regarding our long-standing constitutional traditions of due process and fair representation of clients. I do believe that the two can be meaningfully separated. That is to say: lawyers are not extensions or alter egos of their clients. Also, lawyers do not represent the ideology of their clients. Rather, lawyers are engaged in a long-standing tradition of service to people accused by the state. Just as surgeons don’t decline to work on people because they’re bad, lawyers too have these same obligations once they undertake a representation.

Here Sullivan explains one of the ways he discusses the issue with upset students.

It is important for students to feel as though they can discuss any topic in the House. I’ve reassured them of that. Those conversations go something like this, that “your dean, Dean Sullivan, has represented over the years very many women who have been victims of sexual assault,” that “I’ve represented Winthrop students, women Winthrop students, who have been victims of sexual assault.” [Sullivan added that he has represented Winthrop students both at Harvard and in court proceedings.] I’ve also pointed them to some of my work as part of a team of scholars who have been going about the business of redrafting the Model Penal Code’s sexual-assault provisions, which are very much outdated.

Here’s where he brings up the topic of the University being racially motivated in singling him out for “investigation”. Frankly, I have some trouble agreeing with him, as Harvard would look really bad, not to mention opening itself up for a discrimination lawsuit, if Sullivan’s race had any bearing on the issue. No, I think he was singled out because the students (and the student newspaper, the Crimson) protested so vehemently, and because the client was Harvey Weinstein rather than a garden-variety murderer.

Do you feel that any of the attacks against you have been racially motivated?



No faculty dean in the history of the house system has been subjected to this sort of process in the middle of some pending controversy. It’s just never happened before.

You mean the process of the students being upset or of the faculty saying they’re going to look into it?

No, this climate survey. It’s absolutely never happened before, and I do not believe that it would happen again to any non-minority faculty dean. . .

But I do agree with Sullivan when he places the blame on this investigation, and on the lack of support he’s gotten from Harvard, on the administration rather than the students. That’s a charitable (and brave) thing to do:

Is this on the dean of Harvard College, who launched this survey, or is this in response to student pressure? Do you blame the administration, or do you think that the students forced his hand?

No, students have every right to protest. It’s in the nature of students to protest. The adults in the room, however, do not have to react in the way that they have.

. . . The other thing I want to say is that we can’t lose sight of the fact that one of the reasons this is so troubling is that I am not personally accused of engaging in any misconduct. Given the pitch that the administration has allowed this to continue at and increase, one would think that I had engaged in some form of misconduct with a colleague or a student. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. This is all some vicarious association with a client whom several in our community don’t like. If that becomes the new standard-bearer, then we’re going to see continued threat.

Finally, Sullivan responds to the argument that he should modify his behavior because of his pastoral role as a student advisor/mentor:

What do you say to people who say that this role at Winthrop House is specifically a role in these students’ lives, and it’s about making a community, it’s not about the classroom, and so the standard should be a little different?

I say it is correct that it’s not just about the classroom, but it’s not just about being a thermometer and registering the temperature of students at any given time. Rather, it’s about being the leader of a living learning center where we live together and we learn together. This is Harvard University. Ideas have to continue to be paramount. To the degree that we police certain ideas and don’t police others, we are in trouble as a university. That pains me the most.

As evidence of that, I think I told you at the beginning, last year, I tried a very high-profile sexual-assault case in Missouri. Not a peep from the administration about this being antagonistic to the pastoral role of the faculty dean. This feels very much like a form of content policing from administrative voices. If it were a problem, it would’ve been a problem earlier, which leads me to think that this has everything to do with a small but vocal group of protesters. Look, one has to take seriously the concerns of students. But from the vantage point of a professor and administrator, you also have to insure that the university is a space where multiple ideas can exist and that other students aren’t silenced.

I want to make two other points here. First, it seems as if it isn’t the nature of the crime itself that is so important in the protest by Harvard Students, but the fact that it was a crime allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein: multiple sexual assaults under the threat of him using his power to injure careers.  But why would students protest about Sullivan defending Weinstein when, I presume, they wouldn’t protest if he defended a murderer? I can think of an explanation—that women students might feel that Sullivan was not sympathetic to their concerns about sexual assault—but this doesn’t hold up when you consider that you could make the same argument touting a lack of empathy for student concerns about being assaulted or killed.

Second, several readers yesterday said that they agreed with the students that Sullivan should either leave Winthrop House or stop representing Weinstein or—indeed—anybody. I ask those people this: would you then say that I, Jerry Coyne, am unsuited to mentor students in this way because I once was on the defense team of rapists, assaulters, and murderers, including accused killer O. J. Simpson? If not, why not?

People who argue that Sullivan is engaging in a “dual and conflicting role” by being head of Winthrop House while defending Harvey Weinstein, I submit, don’t understand how the law works, and how a defense attorney’s character is not compromised by his defending those accused of odious crimes. Just remember what Sullivan said above: “lawyers are not extensions or alter egos of their clients. Also, lawyers do not represent the ideology of their clients. Rather, lawyers are engaged in a long-standing tradition of service to people accused by the state. Just as surgeons don’t decline to work on people because they’re bad, lawyers too have these same obligations once they undertake a representation.”

That is a very good point, and gets at the heart of the issue. Would the students call for the resignation of a surgeon who was dean of their house if he operated on and saved the life of someone like Harvey Weinstein? If they were consistent, they should, but that would look pretty stupid. It’s only because Sullivan is a lawyer that this is an issue.


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I think that the reason l’affaire Weinstein is so important is that it was at the heart of the origin of #metoo. That said, I don’t think that matters one bit to Weinstein’s right to representation, or Sullivan’s right to represent him (or his position as a house master). However, I think Sullivan is wrong to attribute the administration’s position to racism. Such a position fails to recognize how identity politics has changed the Left. To defend Weinstein is to defend his crimes, and whatever “good works” Sullivan has previously engaged in don’t expiate that sin. Sullivan should be a lot more concerned about what these protests signify than he seems to be.

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      To defend Weinstein is to defend his crimes, …

      Exactly. Woke doctrine is to “believe victims”. Since “victims” have accused Weinstein he is necessarily guilty. Anyone defending him is thus culpable of not “believing victims” and must knowingly be a bad person.

      • BJ
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        And they seem to think that if he committed one crime, or three, or ten, or twenty, he must have committed any and all similar crimes of which he is accused. If I remember correctly, Jerry’s last post said that Sullivan is taking on only one particular case. It is entirely possible that, in this case, Weinstein is not guilty. But certain people cannot stand to even entertain that idea, no less think he deserves to be defended from any such accusations.

        Weinstein, however horrible he may be, is a person with basic human and Constitutional rights. That’s the beginning and the end of the story here. If we start down the other fork in this road, we start down the road of stripping others of their rights based on our feelings. That is not freedom. Freedom and rights are for everyone, not just the people we like.

        • JB
          Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          Let’s not forget that Weinstein has admitted to much of the wrongdoing he’s being accused of here. “Believe the victims” isn’t just for the woke here, Weinstein has admitted they should be believed (at least some of them should).

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            Let us also not forget that admitting to a crime should not be considered definitive proof of guilt either.
            IIRC the first time DNA evidence was used, it was to exonerate a self-confessed rapist/murderer.

            • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

              Particularly in the context of our broken plea-bargaining system which makes those charged with a crime do a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to plead guilty or fight.

          • BJ
            Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

            I intentionally already addressed this argument in my initial comment.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      “To defend Weinstein is to defend his crimes”.
      No, to defend Weinstein is to do one or both of two things: first, to try to show that the prosecution has not made its case that Weinstein is beyond a reasonable doubt guilty of those crimes with which he is charged; second, if the first fails, to try to show why Weinstein’s sentence for those crimes should be as light as possible. The first clearly does not defend “his crimes”; it says that the prosecution has not proven that the crimes with which Mr. Weinstein has been charged both occurred at all and occurred at the hands of Mr. Weinstein. Only if the defence fails at both, could what has happened be properly characterized as “his crimes”.
      If you’re suggesting that defending Mr. Weinstein is defending sexual assault – as in saying that sexual assault is something that should not be treated as a criminal act – then I think you are very much mistaken. No lawyer that I know, indeed no person that I know, thinks that sexual assault is not a criminal act; but accusation is not conviction, and Mr. Weinstein is entitled to the presumption of innocence and the best defence he can find.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        You misunderstood me. I was saying that I believe that to be the position of Sullivan’s critics.

        • Derek Freyberg
          Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          My mistake – sorry.

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I think the accusations of racism are made in bad faith.

      Up to that point I sympathised with Sullivan entirely because he was arguing principles over identity politics – then he starts playing their own game. You can’t beat them at their own game. Being black didn’t stop the students going after him and they’re not going to stop when he plays the race card – because they’ll still find an angle of oppression (Male, middle class, heterosexual, whatever) that make him a monster. The only way not to win that game is not to play.

      • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I lost respect for Sullivan for his racism claim. Also, in his interview he relied too much on strictly legal arguments and using the “I can’t comment on current litigation” argument. In theory, he should be able to compartmentalize the two jobs but that ignores that he and the students are only human and ignores that his taking of the case was he choice he made.

  2. JB
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    First off, I think your character is beyond reproach: you worked for _free_ as an expert. There are experts out there who will bend their ethics for the right amount of money, but this cannot even be suggested in your case. The only plausible reason you offered testimony is that you cared about evidence being interpreted properly and fairly. Sullivan is likely being paid (although he declines to admit this in the cited interview) so he can’t claim he’s working solely to see justice done. But you, Jerry, cannot be reasonably criticized in the same way. The fact you worked for free makes a huge difference.

    Second, I disagree with the surgeon analogy. A surgeon patching together an unconscious body _is_ helpful to the patient. But it is very different from advocating for someone. A lawyer _is_ an advocate.

    In any case, I found the interview reassuring on several fronts. In particular, Sullivan doesn’t foresee himself attacking the backgrounds of the accusers.

    • rom
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      He is also maintaining the judicial body.

      As a spectator I want to see a good, clean, fair fight; no punching below the belt, biting or scratching.

      It is not the students’ business who he represents.

      it would be my email service provider that WordPress dislikes.

    • Robert Ladley
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Because he is likely being paid he cannot claim he is working solely to see justice is being done.
      Why? This dismissal could apply to many individuals plying their “trade” if he is not in breach of any Harvard employment condition he is certainly within his rights to be paid for his expertise.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      A lawyer undertaking representation in a criminal case has identical legal and ethical obligations — to the client, to opposing counsel, and to the tribunal — regardless whether the lawyer has been paid a fee or is appearing pro bono.

      Rape shield laws enacted in nearly every US jurisdiction prohibit a lawyer from attacking a sexual assault victim’s background (although a victim who testifies at trial can be impeached regarding his or her veracity to the exact same extent as can be any other fact witness).

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      I think the surgeon analogy is extremely good, the surgeon may know his/her patient is eg. a DUI that just killed a whole family.or a plain murderer or rapist. They will still do the job to the best of their ability.
      There was an interesting film (forgot the title) about a surgeon that was raped and shortly after that she had to operate her rapist, deadly wounded in a car crash. That rapist died on the table, Did she kill him or let him die? Well, that’s what the film was about.

      • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        The surgeon analogy is a terrible one. We can make it more accurate if we imagine the surgeon has a night job in a butcher shop or is the community executioner. Do you then trust the surgeon to compartmentalize?

    • eric
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      A lawyer _is_ an advocate.

      I somewhat agree, but that’s a result of our adversarial legal system, in which we think it’s much better to have one group trying as hard as they can to defend the accused and a different group trying as hard as they can to prosecute him/her.

      So, their job is advocacy. But it’s not advocating for the acceptability of the actions their client is accused of doing; it’s being an advocate for the state following the law and not cutting corners to achieve a guilty verdict. They’re an advocate for the idea that nobody should be found guilty when there is ‘reasonable doubt’ as to that (or in civil cases, when there is not a ‘preponderance of evidence’). They are there to advocate for hte jury to do it’s job, follow the law, and determine whether testimony and evidence is sufficient to take a free and potentially innocent person and lock them up.

      Interesting fact: a defense lawyer in the US *cannot* claim their client is innocent if the client has admitted their guilt to that lawyer. It’s illegal. Thus, their “advocacy” is limited to defending the truth as they know it.

  3. Filippo
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “Do you blame the administration, or do you think that the students forced his hand?”

    “No, students have every right to protest. It’s in the nature of students to protest. The adults in the room, however, do not have to react in the way that they have.”

    I wonder at what maximum age Professor Sullivan would consider students to have become “adults in the room.” It’s generally students, not professors, who shout down, cut the mic cord of, and occasionally physically assault speakers with whom they disagree.

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      The term “the adults in the room” is not referring to any of the students, it’s referring to the Harvard authorities who have launched the “climate review”.

  4. BJ
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I think Mr. Sullivan represents an excellent role model to all students and, in particular, law students. He represents the idea that all people, no matter how odious we might think them to be and no matter how sure we are of their guilt, deserve due process and a fair trial. He represents the willingness to do his job and to uphold the Constitution and the rights afforded by it. He represents the idea that we must be able to compartmentalize our thoughts and be able to separate the accused from the law and the basic human rights that protects them. Unless a person doesn’t believe that all people should be afforded the same rights, they need to learn how to square their belief in these rights with their feelings about people they may hate.

    If students — especially law students — cannot learn to separate their feelings about a person from the idea that people they hate deserve Constitutional and human rights, then they have no business being involved with the law or any field that might affect it. We’ve seen in the past few years students being excused from law school classes that discuss laws regarding sex crimes, lest they be traumatized by such discussion. Why should any such student be allowed to become a lawyer? If you’re too fragile to discuss the law, then you have no business practicing it and cannot be relied upon to uphold it and the rights it affords.

    I commend Mr. Sullivan. While Sullivan is in no way like Jacques Verges, I would like to bring up Verges only because I always had immense respect for what the man did, at least in representing the worst of the worst. He represented the most vile people on Earth (though he did so egotistically and I do not at all respect his constant seeking of the limelight, nor many of his methods), the people nobody else dared represent, and he did so at the cost of his own reputation and hate from nearly everyone around the world who knew of him. Still, he represented the idea that all people deserve due process and a robust legal defense, even former SS officers, terrorists, and the like. And, if you know that I’m Jewish and have multiple ancestors who died in the Holocaust, you’ll know that my respect for Mr. Verges’ willingness to represent even the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp (the first of such camps to introduce gassing with Zyklon-B) stems not from my love of Nazis, but from my respect for the idea that all the people of this earth deserve the basic human right of a fair trial and a legal defense.

    If people cannot separate their feelings from the idea that all people deserve basic rights, then that is their problem.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Well said .
      (I was not aware Jacques Verges defended Rudolf Hoss, knew only about Klaus Barbie.)

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I think part of it is ignorance of the law and the attorney client relationship. Did anyone read To Kill a Mockingbird? Another large part of this is the silo mentality that people live in today, on line, on the internet within their tribe. The comfort of the herd mentality covers almost everything. Another reason would even go to this ignorance of our constitution and bill of rights. And it’s just not ignorance of it but disagreement with it. Look how many do not believe in free speech today. They do not believe in the simple stated law that you are innocent until proven guilty. People that do not believe in American values should really consider going someplace else. It kind of makes me sick and it is so juvenile I don’t see how this is even college.

    • JB
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson was a poor black man falsely accused of rape. Atticus Finch represented him (and we all rooted for him) because he was doing the right thing. I don’t think Sullivan is arguing that he’s acting in that capacity here.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        Try to think of it this way. You are a defense attorney in the deep south in 1950s America. How much business would you risk by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman? You would get the same pile on condemnation that Sullivan is getting. And if you think the black defendant had any chance of any outcome but guilty, think again. What I am saying is, different set of circumstances but same outcome.

        And also, Sullivan is obviously feeling just a little bit “hung out” right now.

  6. Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I’m totally on Sullivan’s side in this. Everyone needs a defense and has a right to a good defense. I don’t have to like the offense or the accused person at all to respect this part of our legal system.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    The question here is whether Harvard can dictate to a law professor whom the professor can represent on his or her own time where the representation poses no actual constraint upon the professor’s ability to perform his or her faculty responsibilities, but merely because some students misperceive a conflict of interest based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a lawyer in the American justice system.

    It is perhaps understandable that young, unworldly students would harbor such a misunderstanding. But it would be inexcusable for the Harvard administration, which is in a position to know better, to indulge this misunderstanding rather to edify its students.

    Professor Sullivan has conducted himself in this matter according to the highest standards and best traditions of the legal profession.

    • JB
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      The university gets to dictate what you can and cannot do outside of work. At least mine does. Whether this control they exert is legal or ethical is another matter.

      For example, most universities dictate that you can work at most 1/6 of the week’s hours at a 2nd job; the so-called “one-sixth rule.” This is to prevent a professor letting his consulting job or a start-up overtake his faculty job. Also, if you were to participate in legal-but-unpopular activities (suppose you’re openly a KKK member on the weekend) they’d find a way to get rid of you. Ward Churchill used to work a couple of buildings down from me, but then one day he suggested that the 9/11 victims deserved what they got… he no longer works here.

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        My understanding is that ex-professor Ward Churchill was dismissed by the U. of Colorado for plagiarism and fraud. His contention that all the 9/11 victims were Nazis was not one of the charges against him, although it did draw attention, which is perhaps not a wise move after all for a professional faker.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        The time restriction you mention appears to be imposed because spending excessive time on outside work would interfere with a professor’s ability to devote adequate time to or her professional obligations at the university. Do you think that a university can limit a law professor’s outside legal representation not because a case would command too much of his or her time, but solely because of the identity of the client?

        Also, can a tenured professor at your school actually be fired for engaging in unpopular but lawful speech on the professor’s own time?

        • JB
          Posted March 11, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          I’ve always been perplexed that the University can restrict what outside work I can engage in (via the one-sixth rule) on the premise that it may detract from my professional obligations, but they would never tell me I can’t have children even though this has had a far greater impact on my ability to work. Can they also restrict how much time I spend on hobbies? Or doing sports? What control exactly do they have over how I spend my weekends?

          To your 2nd question I would say that Churchill was fired because of his statements about the 9/11 victims. As Jon Gallant notes, he was officially fired for reasons of scholarship (which are pretty thin), but no one thought to look at his record until after he started making outrageous statements.

          I can think of lesser cases at other institutions (lesser meaning untenured folks). Lisa Durden said some things on Fox News that got her fired. Katherine Dettwyler said Otto Warmbier deserved to die in N Korea and was fired. There are probably 20 cases like this of adjuncts being let go.

          Tenured cases are rarer. Rick Mehta said multiculturalism was a scam and the male-female wage gap is a myth. He was let go, despite having tenure.

  8. Curtis
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Infamously woke universities (e.g. Evergreen and University of Missouri) have suffered dropping enrollment and alumni contributions. It will be interesting to see what happens at Harvard. I realize that they have so much money and so many potential students that it won’t really hurt for a while.

    Also, the Harvard alumni my wife and I have met have generally been clueless dunces. I have probably met only a dozen but most seem to have been educated well past their abilities. For example, several were MBAs and they could count beans but had no idea of value. Some have been so incompetent that I checked to see whether they actually went to Harvard.

    • pablo
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Harvard’s endowment is such that they could expell all of their students and it wouldn’t make a financial dent.

      • Curtis
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        That sounds exactly how one Harvard MBA I knew would cut costs.

  9. darrelle
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    “Even rich people are at a resource disadvantage walking in, so the popular mythology that you can buy justice really doesn’t apply in the criminal context.

    I don’t buy that for a second.

    But, regarding this situation I think the students protesting Sullivan are wrong and the Harvard administration is being reprehensible. The students are spoiled attention seeking sub-adults who don’t understand that if they were to actually get a system that works like they want it too that everyone, including themselves, will be much worse off. The Harvard administration is just pathetic.

    People are talking about various analogies to compare Sullivan’s role as a lawyer defending the odious Weinstein, but none of them seem to quite fit to me. It seems to me that the main reason folks like Sullivan, and Jerry for that matter, work to defend folks like Weinstein and OJ is not because of a desire to help the defendant personally but rather because of a desire to maintain or improve our criminal justice system in general.

    • Curtis
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      The government plays lots of games to make it as expensive as possible to defend yourself. If you are a billionaire, you can afford it. Multimillionaires can lose most of their net worth defending themselves. Upper middle class people who are lucky enough to keep their jobs, can kiss their retirement good bye. Poor peoples’ lives are generally shot to hell.

      The government’s goal to extort a guilty plea and many DAs will stop at nothing to get it. Some statee specifically exclude government actions from their definition of extortion.

    • Harrison
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      The “Uncle Sam has deeper pockets than even the richest private citizens” argument breaks down pretty easily. While the federal government as a whole has more resources than an individual, a federal prosecutor does not have access to more than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of them.

      • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think the argument is strong either. If the State set its mind on a particular prosecution, yes they could do that, but they don’t have infinite resources for every single case. It’s not like an episode of CSI where they have the budget of CERN to throw at parking offences; there’s a bazillion rape kits waiting to be analysed, for instance.

    • eric
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, several of his sentences are clearly him using the interview to defend his client in the court of public opinion. That’s one of them.

      He’s got some good points to make, but since he’s ‘on the clock’ it’s IMO a huge mistake for anyone to think he’s giving unbiased ‘purely academic’ answers to the interviewer.

  10. Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Several points.

    1) You (PCC) acted as an expert witness, not a lawyer, right? An expert witness, unlike a lawyer, is not expected to advocate for the client but only testify in the area of their expertise.

    2) Sullivan’s comments about the role of money in mounting a defense seem pretty disingenuous. What he said is all true but tap dances around the fact that being able to afford better lawyers is very helpful in a criminal trial.

    3) I thought the students were asking him to be dismissed from his professorship. It seems that they are only asking for him to be dismissed in his Winthrop House role.

    4) Sullivan claiming that the University’s reaction to the protest is racially motivated seems misguided to me. Unless he has obvious proof of that, he is throwing gasoline on the fire. Perhaps he is attempting to get them to back off by making this claim. Unless he has more proof of this, he is being manipulative.

    5) Sullivan: “I tried the sexual-assault case against the governor of Missouri.” Doesn’t this put him on the other, anti-sexual-assault side? Greitens was charged with sexual assault and Sullivan aided the prosecution of that crime. How can Sullivan claim that this helps his argument? What am I missing here?

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      On #5, I guess Sullivan was saying that sometimes he is on the other side. This seems a pretty weak defense to me. No one is accusing him of being pro-rape. (Well, maybe some of the students might be but I’m not.) Again, its the appearance of conflict of interest that is in question.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        The point is that there is no actual conflict of interest — nothing about Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein constrains in any way his participation in any other legal matter (or at least any matter that doesn’t also involve Weinstein) or constrains in any way his performance of his duties as a faculty dean at Winthrop House.

        Any “appearance of conflict” is solely in the imagination of those who are benighted about how our justice system works and the lawyer’s role in it.

        • Posted March 11, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          When it comes to victims (or potential victims) of sexual assault, their imagination counts for a lot. They should be feel at ease and Sullivan’s defense of an accused serial offender may interfere with that. He had choices as to what cases he takes and simply made the wrong choice here, IMHO.

          • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            Sorry but you can’t cater to that imagination. As an expert witness for the defense I was in some sense “advocating” for the defense. If you extend your argument, then in people’s imagination I was having a conflict of interest with women students. In fact, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THEY THOUGHT. They were uncomfortable that I was teaching in their department when I was “defending rapists.” Are you saying that I should cater to that imagination too and resign? What matters is not what the most offense-prone student thinks, but what rational behavior is.

            • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

              Right but there is a matter of degree here though. Certainly an expert witness on DNA, though part of the defense team, is not as involved in defending the person as a defense lawyer. Of course, I have no doubt that some students would fail to make such a distinction.

              Still, like most things, it is a matter of degree and judgement. In your situation as expert witness, it seems clear that the students’ demands for your resignation should be ignored. Also, I assume you were not in a position where you were expected to counsel students who had been sexually assaulted though obviously I don’t know that for sure. With the Sullivan situation it doesn’t seem so simple and, from my distant perch, I would go the other way and support the students.

          • eric
            Posted March 11, 2019 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

            They should be feel at ease and Sullivan’s defense of an accused serial offender may interfere with that.

            Why should they feel at ease? Seriously, why should a professor be forced to curtail typical and normal professional activities if some of their students object to that?

            And where does it stop?

            If an economics professor published a book on the failure of communism, should they be prevented from giving TV interviews about it because it makes their communist students not feel at ease?

            If a geologist gets invited to participate in a research study to produce a better estimate of the age of the earth, and this causes some of their religious students to not feel at ease, should the school tell them not to participate in it?


            Students are often going to feel ill at ease with an opinion or position taken by a professor. They should, IMO – this is a good thing. A learning experience. And in this case, I tihnk it’s a very very important lesson for young law students – i.e. would-be future lawyers – to learn: that they are taking on a profession where they may be expected to defend people they disagree with, or prosecute people they agree with, or interact professionally and have working relationships with other lawyers who do these things.

            • Posted March 12, 2019 at 1:05 am | Permalink

              None of this is about Sullivan’s role as a law professor but as an adviser to a specific body of students. All your examples don’t apply to this situation.

              • darrelle
                Posted March 12, 2019 at 7:22 am | Permalink

                Well said Eric. That pretty much covers it.

              • darrelle
                Posted March 12, 2019 at 7:25 am | Permalink

                I understand that you feel that this makes a difference and I understand your reasons, but I disagree.

            • Gabrielle
              Posted March 12, 2019 at 7:04 am | Permalink

              This isn’t about his role as a law professor teaching law students. This is about his appointment as a faculty dean in Winthrop House, a dorm for sophomore-to-senior undergraduates. Faculty deans live in the dorms with the students, and they are in charge of the staff that run the dorms.
              According to the Harvard Dean of Students website, 98% of Harvard undergrads live in such dorms.

    • Gareth Price
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      I agree that everyone deserves a proper defense and that Professor Sullivan be free to defend whoever he chooses. And obviously defending someone accused of sexual assault does not equal defending sexual assault. I don’t think his job should be in jeopardy and I don’t think students have any reason to feel unsafe or threatened.

      That said, I share some of Paul Topping’s unease. I haven’t been to a US university and I don’t know exactly what a House Dean does. Would a student be approaching him if she had been sexually assaulted? What if his role on the Weinstein defense team involves creating a strategy to undermine a victim’s credibility? Even if this doesn’t equate to a conflict of interest, I can see why some people would be uncomfortable if he potentially plays these two different roles.

  11. Posted March 11, 2019 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    What a sad state of affairs it is that where once those on the left could still venerate Clarence Darrow, in spite of fact that he undertook some cases where the defendants were abhorred by them, to now when the left feel that a lawyer must punished if defending someone differing from their own established groupthink

  12. Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    To determine his rights, and Harvard’s would requiring reading both his contract and other pertinent Harvard guidelines for brhavior and conduct of people in his position. Having not done that, there is no fair way to answer the question being raised by the parties or by the people who have commented on this site.

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


  13. Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Correct me if I am wrong, but a lawyer is also there to help with the justice of the procedure involved, too. So even if a defense attorney’s client is obviously guilty, he still has a job to ensure that he doesn’t get mistreated relative to the crime, etc.

    • Legal_Guy
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Correct. I’m a criminal defense attorney, I’ve had some friends essentially disown me for the people I represent, but at the end of the day, protecting due process, a cause far greater than any one conflict, is what keeps many of us going every day.

      • Legal_Guy
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        I meant to say, a cause greater than any one client

  14. Roo
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    AI very much admire lawyers – often members of minorities themselves – who prove their commitment to free speech by taking on ACLU cases involving white supremacists and such. I’m proud to live in a country where this level of commitment to free speech is a tradition. If we got to a point where people saw this as an endorsement of white supremacy, I would be horrified.

    That said, I think there is something subtly different about cases involving various types of sexually abusive behavior. No one suggests that someone wants to be murdered, or robbed, or discriminated against, and so on. It’s a question of whether or not it actually happened, not a question of the desires of the participants. Cases involving sexual behavior very often hinge on implying some level of consent where the accuser insists there was none. Essentially trying to prove the accuser is lying, at least to some extent. To my mind, that does make a difference when someone is in a mentorship role with students. The fact that Sullivan is likely being paid pretty well for this job doesn’t help either.

    I do think it is fair for Sullivan to point out that he has worked on sexual assault cases in the past and this has not been an issue, however. If the university wants to say they’re doing this as a matter of principle then this pretty well contradicts that line of thinking. I’m not opposed to the idea that people in Sullivan’s position should be contractually obliged to avoid taking certain kinds of cases, but it seems like it’s late in the game to introduce it now.

    • eric
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      This may be a standard tactic but it’s certainly not the only way to defend a client like Weinstein. He could argue insufficiency of evidence to meet the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ criteria. Or that that the prosecutor violated some procedural rule in bringing the case. Or, given that Weinstein has admitted guilt for some of the events, he could be arguing that the actions fall under the definition of some lesser crime rather than some greater one.

      Sullivan’s response that this case contains an important point of law he wants to explore certainly doesn’t sound like his plan is to make all of the accusers out to be liars. Maybe there is no such point of law and he’s just making public statements in defense of his client. But taking that bit to be a sincere claim on his part, it doesn’t sound like his role in Weinstein’s defense team is to be the ‘bad cop.’ And frankly, from a purely mercenary/tactical standpoint, I’ll bet that Weinstein’s defense team has a woman lawyer play that role.

  15. JezGrove
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Represented “the family of Michael Gray”?! Well, I guess “Gray” (and “Brown”) lives matter, too.

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, got the name wrong. Fixed now.

      • JezGrove
        Posted March 11, 2019 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. Unfortunately it’s impossible to stop proofreading, even when you’re not working…

  16. pablo
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    His status as a minority is probably the thing that so far has saved him.

  17. JezGrove
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure how well it works, but in theory at least the ‘cab rank rule’ ensures that defence lawyers can’t decline to represent a client unless the case falls outside of their area of expertise etc.

    • JezGrove
      Posted March 11, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      For clarity, Wikipedia states: “Without the cab-rank rule, an unpopular person might not get legal representation; barristers who acted for them might be criticised for doing so.”

  18. Posted March 11, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I find it quite OK for Sullivan to use his melanin level to mount a counterattack, once his opponents have started the battle and have staged it exactly at this (low) level.

  19. Terry Lynne Pedersen
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for printing this today. The crazed thinking seems a mass hysteria now.
    A St. Vitus dance in a new form. Worse because we are so connected now, with rash
    judgements made without any checking of facts or reasoning.

  20. rickflick
    Posted March 11, 2019 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    I am pretty much for the principle that every scumbag needs a decent defense. In fact, I fear, this is seldom the case. Think of all the thousand of trials involving indigent defendants. There must be very many where a solid defense is lacking. In the case in question we have a high visibility, very wealthy accused, hiring a high visibility, very competent attorney. I like Weinstien’s odds. Not so much the average schmo. But, that’s our system of justice, I suppose.

  21. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted March 12, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    This is exactly the same kind of spurious attack on a person just doing his fucking job as the attack by the Trumpettes on Hillary for defending murderers when she was a lawyer. Defending criminals is what lawyers do. Why is that so hard to understand? Why are progressives the ones undermining the rule of law now with such stupidities? Leave it to the Right to undermine the rule of law! It’s what they do best!

    • Posted March 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Of course they know all this, at least most of those in elected office. It is deliberate twisting of current and past events to generate misinformation for consumption by the rubes that vote for them. A great example is Trump’s response to the Democrat’s minor kerfuffle over Omar’s Israel comments, amplifying it into “Dems hate Israel”.

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