Statement released March 31, 2019
Harvard Law School’s Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) writes this statement in regard to the controversy surrounding Harvard Law Professor Ron Sullivan’s representation of Harvey Weinstein. Professor Sullivan has been HBLSA’s faculty advisor for many years. Because of this, HBLSA finds it important that we speak to the controversy and make the ask of Harvard University to both unequivocally support survivors of sexual violence and to do so in a way that does not scapegoat Professor Sullivan for the University’s failings to address sexual violence on campus.
We speak only on behalf of HBLSA and write to make clear the following:
1. As an organization, we unequivocally support survivors of sexual violence.
We hope that our unequivocal support of survivors of sexual violence needs little explanation. In the U.S., the CDC reports that about 1 in 3 women (36.3%) and nearly 1 in 6 men (17.1%) experience some form of contact sexual violence (SV) during their lifetime. About 1 in 5 women (19.1% or an estimated 23 million women) have experienced completed or attempted rape at some point in their lives. In 2015, a U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. According to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint, 60% of Black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. Statistics of sexual violence for Black women are likely higher, however, as Black women are less likely to report instances of sexual violence for various reasons. Sexual violence can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor, ranging from sleep disorders to suicidal ideation.
There is no question that sexual violence is a problem in the US and on college campuses across the country. There is no question that we must support survivors of sexual violence wholeheartedly.
As an organization of over 130 members, we do, however, share different perspectives on what that support looks like. Some members of HBLSA support the efforts of organizations like Common Justice, a restorative justice program highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s recent NYT opinion article that offers a process that both centers survivors of acts of violence and gives survivors the opportunity to define the terms of how to hold the person responsible accountable in ways that seek to repair the harm rather than simply sending the responsible party to prison. Other HBLSA members look to the current criminal legal system to prosecute crimes of sexual violence. We’ve discussed the range of ways support can be for survivors, and while we may not be in total agreement on what form it should take, we are clear that unequivocal support for survivors of sexual violence is needed.
2. We disagree wholeheartedly with the insinuation that attorneys should not represent those accused of sexual assault and rape.
Several authors writing on this issue appear to argue that the critique of Professor Sullivan’s representation of Harvey Weinstein comes from a point of view that defense attorneys should not represent those who have been accused of crimes of sexual violence. As a general matter, we disagree with that point of view. As has been argued, the right to legal counsel in criminal trials is a necessary aspect of our criminal legal system and critical to maintaining any semblance of due process in that system. 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.
3. We defer to the students of Harvard College in regards to their concerns with Professor Sullivan’s leadership as Faculty Dean.
Faculty Deans play a critical role of setting the tone at each of the twelve undergraduate residential Houses at Harvard University. Students at Harvard College have raised concerns that Professor Sullivan’s decision to represent Harvey Weinstein is incompatible with his role as Faculty Dean, especially so given Weinstein’s unique role as a catalyst and cultural symbol in the resurgence of the #MeToo movement. As law students, we are not equipped to speak to the dynamics between Professor Sullivan and the students of Winthrop House. We are also not equipped to speak of the dynamics between the larger Harvard College student body and their Deans as we cannot truly understand the role the Faculty Deans play in student life at the College. Because of this, we defer to the students of Harvard College in regards to their concerns with Professor Sullivan and his continued leadership as Faculty Dean. If the students who have this unique relationship have raised concerns, either as students in Winthrop House or as members of the broader Harvard College community, their critique deserves to be heard on its own terms and in light of their unique relationship as a student of Harvard College engaging with a Faculty Dean rather than the implications of that relationship being ignored or dismissed wholesale as appears to have been done by some writers.
4. We condemn the outsized response taken by Harvard University, and some members of the Harvard Community. We take note of the racist undertones that characterize this outsized response.
As previously stated, we defer to the students of Harvard College in regards to their concerns with Professor Sullivan’s leadership at Winthrop House and how they hope to address those concerns. At the same time, we condemn any actions by Harvard University and some members of the Harvard Community to scapegoat Professor Sullivan for the ongoing failures of the University to effectively address the many issues of sexual assault on campus.
In 2015, Harvard University’s Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Assault wrote to then-President Drew Faust that sexual assault is “a serious and widespread problem that profoundly violates the values and undermines the educational goals of this University.” Of the 60 percent of women in the 2015 graduating class at Harvard College, 31% said they had experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact at Harvard. 16% of female Harvard College seniors from that survey characterized that contact as “nonconsensual completed or attempted penetration involving physical force, incapacitation or both. Fast forward two years, and in fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, Harvard’s Title IX office received 416 disclosures of sexual and gender-based harassment, an increase of 55 percent from the previous year. While this increase potentially comes from increased levels of reporting rather than actually increased levels of sexual and gender-based harassment, it still speaks to the fact that sexual violence has been and remains a major issue on campus to this day. Moreover, Harvard currently refuses to agree to third-party neutral grievance procedure for student workers in cases of discrimination and sexual harassment. Professor Sullivan should not be made a scapegoat for the University’s general failing to address pressing and prevalent issues of sexual violence.
We are also concerned of the racist undertones evidenced by the disproportionate response to this issue by the University and, likely, some members of the University community. In late February, the Dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana, announced a “climate review” of Winthrop House. Professor Sullivan stated in a recent New York Times article that, “[n]ever in the history of the faculty dean position has the dean been subjected to a ‘climate review’ in the middle of some controversy.” As Professor Sullivan noted in that article, it is not lost on us that Professor Sullivan was the first African American appointed to the position of Faculty Dean in Harvard’s history. Taking his statements as true, he is also the first Faculty Dean to receive such outsized treatment in the case of a controversy. Additionally, in late February someone vandalized Winthrop House, Professor Sullivan’s home, with white spray paint with slogans including the language of “Down w Sullivan!” As much as we recognize the anger and/or hurt felt by some students, it is unacceptable that in the face of such controversy the first Black Faculty Dean has to return to a vandalized home, evoking images of Jim Crow era tactics to control Black communities and the use of such vandalism to this day by white supremacists.
5. We both respect and appreciate Prof. Sullivan’s previous and current work representing and supporting people from all walks of life as an attorney, faculty advisor, and professor.
Professor Sullivan is a world-renowned attorney who has dedicated his career to representing clients from all walks of life. Through his work with the office of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Professor Sullivan designed and implemented a Conviction Review Unit (CRU) to identify and exonerate wrongfully convicted persons. The CRU has become one of the foremost model programs in the nation. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he designed an indigent defense delivery system that resulted in the release of nearly all 6,000 people around New Orleans without representation and with all official records destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He is the faculty director of the Harvard Law Criminal Justice Institute, a criminal law clinical program that provides much-needed defense of low-income members of the Boston community in criminal court. Moreover, as our faculty advisor, he has shown up in many ways for the members of HBLSA. The list of his accomplishments is long, and as an organization, we greatly appreciate Professor Sullivan’s years of support for HBLSA and the great work he’s done in the legal community.
As a community, we recognize the division this controversy has exposed in the Harvard Community, among friends, and even within our organization. We ask, however, that the University’s efforts to address this controversy be handled in a way that both prioritizes survivors of sexual violence while not scapegoating Professor Sullivan for broader University failures or failing to prevent actions like the vandalizing of Professor Sullivan’s home.