Why We’re Leaving Winthrop House

An Op-Ed by Allison J. Scharmann and Caroline R. Kaufman

The house community at Harvard is supposed to be exactly that: a community. The Houses are places where students are meant to feel welcome, safe, and included. When 15 upperclassmen students danced their way into our first-year dorms chanting: “T-H-R-O-P You Just Won the Lottery,” we could not have been more excited to spend our next three years in Winthrop House. On Housing Day this year, however, we did not storm first-year dorms with pride and excitement. We did not don our house gear or boast about how Winthrop is the best house on campus. To do so would have felt like a lie. Ever since the news broke that our Faculty Dean Ron S. Sullivan would be defending alleged sexual predator Harvey Weinstein in court, Winthrop House has not been home.

Much has been said in recent weeks about Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein. Current students, alumni, scholars, and editorial writers took to the press to express their disagreement or their support. But there has been a noticeable, almost complete silence from the perspective that matters most in this debate: the students currently living in Winthrop. More specifically, the perspective of sexual assault survivors in the house. Public conversation around the situation has touched on themes of justice, responsibility, free speech, and defense, and in doing so has minimized our discomfort to a point of argumentation. Our feelings are not up for debate. We do not feel welcome at house events, or within the Winthrop House Community at large. In one of his emails to all of Winthrop House, Dean Sullivan said that “even if only one student at Winthrop is hurt or uncomfortable, that constitutes one too many.” And he is right. We are hurt, we are uncomfortable, and we are leaving Winthrop House for good.

When the story broke it felt like a slap in the face. The first email we received from our Faculty Dean in the wake of the news did not mention sexual assault, Title IX resources, or anything else to suggest the least bit of concern for the wellbeing of sexual assault survivors living in Winthrop House, or the effect his decision might have had on us. And the only way students could express their concerns was to attend private office hours with the Sullivans, a message that was reiterated by tutors, house staff, and even other students — completely ignoring the massive power imbalance that would hang over any conversation between an undergraduate student and a respected law professor in a position of authority. Going to his office hours would mean having to divulge our personal trauma and discomfort to Dean Sullivan face-to-face. Can you blame us for not attending?

Further, Dean Sullivan used his position as a Faculty Dean to email every resident of Winthrop House a personal disparagement of The Harvard Crimson’s coverage of his representation, along with a lengthy list of editorials that support his decision. This email was sent to us just two days after we were asked to complete a survey as part of the Winthrop House Climate Review. More distressing than his attack of our student press, or even the list of Op-Eds meant to influence our opinions, was his inclusion of an unpublished, anonymous letter by a previous Winthrop student whom Sullivan represented in the aftermath of her sexual assault. The letter ended as follows:

We do not question the author’s narrative, however it is simply not true that we, students and survivors of sexual assault residing in Winthrop House, do not have the right to speak out against Sullivan’s choice. His representation of sexual assault survivors in the past does not disqualify him from criticism, nor does it guarantee that current Winthrop students will not and do not feel uncomfortable residing in Winthrop House. By deferring all sexual assault reporting responsibilities to Winthrop Resident Dean Dr. Linda Chavers, Sullivan has acknowledged his compromised ability — in the eyes of the Winthrop Community — to listen to, acknowledge, and support them in such matters. That Sullivan sent us Op-Eds in defense of his professedly separate role as an attorney, including an open letter attacking our very right to speak out about the issue at all, is a clear abuse of his position as a Faculty Dean.

To discuss Dean Sullivan’s role as an attorney is beside the point and an intended distraction. It is our right to feel this way in the place Harvard tells us is our home. When we first heard the news, Dean Sullivan had the chance to reassure the House about his considerations and obligations to us as a Faculty Dean. Instead, he sent us an eleven paragraph email to tell us how little we know about the law. That was never the question.

It is naive and irresponsible to believe that Dean Sullivan’s decision to represent Harvey Weinstein will not discourage survivors from reporting their assaults in Winthrop House. As survivors, it is difficult not to imagine ourselves on that witness stand. We have had our credibility called into question. We could not prove in a court of law that we were assaulted. Our evidence is not tangible, it is emotional. It is in our memory, in our diary entries, in our therapy sessions. It is right here in this Op-Ed. But this does not make what happened to us any less real. It does not make this any less a failure of justice.

We do not believe that Ron Sullivan is an extension of his clients — no lawyer is — and we are not arguing that his position as a professor of criminal justice should bar him from taking this case. But Winthrop House is not Harvard Law School and we are not first-year law students. We are in his house, not his classroom, and we are still waiting for him to acknowledge that very important distinction. It is common for lawyers and for law professors to take on unpopular cases and clients. However, our alienation and our experiences are proof that in taking on Weinstein’s case and then immediately attacking us for reacting, Dean Sullivan has compromised his ability to support students as the Faculty Dean of Winthrop House. We have found ourselves isolated from our house community, avoiding events and activities out of fear that our Faculty Deans will be present. Deciding to leave Winthrop was not easy, but it was the choice we had to make.

— Allison J. Scharmann is a sophomore in Winthrop House studying Social Studies and English, Caroline R. Kaufman is a sophomore in Winthrop House studying English.