Harvard University has launched an investigation into law professor Ronald Sullivan after he agreed to represent Harvey Weinstein in court.
Mr Sullivan, the university’s first African American faculty dean, joined Mr Weinstein’s legal team in January, ahead of the June trial for rape.
Mr Weinstein himself was spotted on Wednesday meeting a private investigator, Herman Weisberg, who he has hired to assist in his case. The two men met at a Cipriani Dolci restaurant in Grand Central station, with Mr Weinstein attempting to disguise his appearance with a black baseball cap and dark glasses.
Mr Sullivan, on joining Mr Weinstein’s team, felt the backlash almost immediately, as his students began complaining that his decision to represent the disgraced film producer traumatised them, and put them at risk.
A student, studying visual and environmental studies, started an online petition to remove Mr Sullivan from his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate residential houses. The petition said his choice of client was “deeply trauma-inducing,” and showed that Mr Sullivan doesn’t “value the safety of students”. No students have signed so far.
The house was covered in #MeToo graffiti slogans, such as “your silence is violence”, and the Association of Black Harvard Women complained that Mr Sullivan had “failed” female African-Americans at Harvard and had compromised his ability to support “survivors . . . as they deal with their trauma.”
On January 25 Mr Sullivan wrote to the students at Winthrop House, where he is dean, explaining his decision to defend the reviled 67-year-old.
“It has come to my attention that a few of you have questions and a few others have concerns in regard to my most recent representation,” Mr Sullivan wrote.
“I shall take this opportunity to say a word to our community about the nature of criminal defense in the United States.”
Mr Sullivan, one of the most respected criminal defence lawyers in the country, represented NFL player Aaron Hernandez in his acquittal for a double homicide, and helped the family of Michael Brown reach a $1.5-million wrongful-death settlement with the city of Ferguson, Missouri. He also, for free, helped hundreds of Louisianans wrongly imprisoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The 52-year-old explained that “every citizen charged with a crime is cloaked with the presumption of innocence.”
“It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else – perhaps even more important,” he wrote.
“To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be.”
He said he would speak personally in his office with any student, to address their questions or concerns.
“Winthrop has been and will remain a space that welcomes all points of view,” he wrote. “Free, frank and robust dialogue is the best way to clear up any confusions.”
The email did little to quell the storm, and Harvard earlier this month announced they were opening a “climate survey” to ask Winthrop House members to share their concerns about the case.
Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College and a business school professor, launched the review and student newspaper The Harvard Crimson reported that Mr Khurana was “actively” communicating to Mr Sullivan what he was hearing from “members of the community and what they’re describing their needs [sic] so that Professor Sullivan can adjust to those needs.”
Furthermore, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, said Mr Sullivan’s efforts to reassure the community about his commitment to its safety have been “insufficient.”
“I am hopeful that Professor Sullivan is prepared to be a partner in that work,” she said.
Mr Sullivan told The New Yorker he believes there may be a racial aspect to the unease, pointing out that other Harvard staff have taken on controversial clients without the backlash.
“I did not anticipate this reaction prior to taking the case,” he told the magazine.
“The reason I did not anticipate this reaction is because, the semester before, I tried the sexual-assault case against the governor of Missouri. I was the lead prosecutor in that case. Previously, I had tried a double-murder case. I had represented the family of an accused terrorist.
“My thinking at the time was that people in Winthrop House were quite well aware of my academic work as a criminal-law teacher and as a criminal-law practitioner. I was personally surprised by the reaction with respect to this client.”