The case against Harvey Weinstein has stirred controversy on campus at Harvard University, where a law professor has joined the film mogul's legal team.
Ronald Sullivan, who also defended former Patriots football star Aaron Hernandez, has faced criticism from undergraduates at the school who believe he should no longer hold his position as a faculty dean of Winthrop House, a residence hall on campus. An online petition with nearly 200 signatures calls for Sullivan to step down, given the nature of the allegations against Weinstein.
"Will students feel comfortable going up to him with questions and concerns? Is it going to jeopardize the comfort of the house environments here?" asked student Gabriella Lombardo.
According to Lombardo, Sullivan's role as a faculty dean requires him to develop close relationships with students and she believes many female classmates would now have reservations about confiding in him when it comes to issues of sexual harassment or assault.
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"This is really kind of a steward of the house life here and of the students," Lombardo explained. "Your priority ought to be your students and how they are feeling."
However, in a letter sent to students and obtained by NBC10 Boston, Sullivan tried to address those concerns, as well as make a legal argument for his involvement in Weinstein's case and others.
"People accused of a crime, even very serious crimes, have a constitutional right to zealous representation by counsel. I began my career as a public defender and, from time to time, I still represent the criminally accused, including some of your fellow students," wrote Sullivan.
Some of those students reached out to NBC10 Boston to support Sullivan and push back against the criticism.
One former Harvard Law student, who asked to remain anonymous, said Sullivan was one of the only people she confided in following a sexual assault committed by a classmate.
"I am really disturbed by the rhetoric on campus about him and about how he might address cases of sexual assault," she said in a phone interview.
Following her assault, the victim said Sullivan was the one who encouraged her to report it to law enforcement and the school. He then offered to represent her pro bono.
"He went above and beyond than what would have been expected of him as a dean and mentor," she explained. "I think that's so important and what really just upsets me is that these women are drawing conclusions about what could happen in the future. And I'm sitting here screaming, 'No!'"
Another former student of Sullivan argued the issue highlights Harvard's discomfort with diverse opinions.
"I think generally, the campus has a huge issue accepting views that are different from our own. As it pertains to Harvey Weinstein, regardless of my personal views, it's important to be able to welcome people of different views," said Harvard graduate Faith Jackson.
University leaders said supporting students was a top priority.
"I take seriously the concerns that have been raised from members of the College community regarding the impact of Professor Sullivan's choice to serve as counsel for Harvey Weinstein on the House community that he is responsible for leading as a faculty dean," Rakesh Khurana, dean of the college, said in a statement. "Over the past week, I, along with my leadership team, have been actively engaged with the Winthrop House residential staff to ensure that they feel supported in their work with the students and we continue to listen to students to better understand the evolving situation. I have also met with Professor Sullivan to discuss his responsibilities to the House and have communicated that the College believes that more work must be done to uphold our commitment to the well-being of our students."
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Students pushing to remove Sullivan from his position remain undeterred. As of Tuesday evening, their petition remained online, just shy of their 200 signature goal.
"Why should a House dean be taking on such a high profile case? We want Harvard to be super vigilant," said Lombardo.