Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Harvard does not deserve Ron Sullivan"

I am posting below an op-ed that was submitted to and rejected by the Crimson. The author has made it public and I am posting it here with her permission. It describes her sexual assault, and is tough reading.


At the end of my first semester at Harvard, I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. He was over half a foot taller and at least 50 pounds heavier than I was. He came into my bedroom, got on top of me, and penetrated me, all within seconds. He stopped only when I told him that it hurt, and that I was a virgin. (For the career victim-shamers: both were true).
He invited himself to sleep next to me that night, but I don't remember sleeping. I do remember that on the morning of my first day of 'freedom' after finals, this man's large body was on 'my' side of the bed, obstructing my clear path to the door, and I was still in vaginal pain and bleeding. I lived alone. That was the last time I lived alone.

I only told two people about this incident. My best friend from my section, and Ron Sullivan.

There has been a lot of talk about what Dean Sullivan may or may not say, or do, or feelings he might provoke from victims who may disclose sexual assault to him. We don't have to speculate. This situation has happened before, many times over. So if you are a woman who purports to care about other women, or a concerned male ally, and you are protesting Sullivan on the bases of these concerns, please put your picket signs down and please listen to the very real emotions of a victim who has been in the exact situation you are trying to protect me from.

There were a lot of reasons that I chose to 'outcry' to Dean Sullivan, including his exceptionally kind, warm, and caring nature for which he was well-known amongst the student body. But principally, his high-profile career of successful representation of rape defendants is exactly what drew me to disclose to him. This was his world, and he knew how to rip allegations apart. I didn't have DNA evidence, no one else was around, and people saw me drinking on Mass Ave earlier that night. Did I have a case? What, if anything, could I do to preserve it? Where does formal reporting even begin? Would Harvard hold it against me in the future? What would the rest of the process look like? Was it worth it?

Dean Sullivan answered these and many other questions - and he preempted even more questions I had not thought of - but first, he listened. Then, he led with comforts that this was a "judgment-free" zone; that he would never do anything with the information I gave him that I didn't explicitly want him to; that I had done nothing wrong; and he thanked me for telling him. Put simply, he validated my experience and made me feel safe, and it was in a way that screamed to me: he's done this a lot before.

He asked me about evidence I would have never thought would be useful. He asked me questions about the order of events that made me realize the importance of certain details that night I was otherwise trying to forget. He tried to identify potential witnesses. He vividly and patiently walked me through the formal processes that could ensue, including AdBoard/Title IX proceedings as well as criminal prosecution. He prepared me for various potential outcomes of all of these avenues, rooted clearly in his significant experience through each of them. He emphatically encouraged me to speak to law enforcement, counselors, and Title IX staff, and he offered to represent me at any and all proceedings to the very end pro bono. He asked if he could walk me to a Title IX Dean's office himself, knowing all the while that my assailant was another one of his students. And he kept the entire conversation anchored in what I felt and what I wanted, to the extent that I knew. I had access to the premiere expert in tearing down a case in order to build mine up, and he was even better at it than I could have ever expected.

And I need you to know this: he was sad. And he was angry. He is a father and a husband and when his status as a mastermind of criminal law was not at play across the table, his paternalistic protectiveness was. I can't put my finger on exactly what made me feel this way, but he made me sure that he was ready to dismantle Harvard if he needed to in order to get justice for me.

He did small, conscientious things, too. We had many conversations about this incident and other related issues, and he would always call his secretary at the end of these meetings to ask the students lining up to leave because something came up - just so I wouldn't have to walk by fellow students when I left his office. He fought like hell to make sure no one knew I was a victim. And he was generous with his time. As other survivors can attest, this is not a five-minute conversation. He took great pains to make sure I never felt I was a burden or that our conversation was incomplete, and he was always there when I needed him. While I cannot disclose how my incident played out because it might identify me or my assailant, I can say confidently that Dean Sullivan could have made six to seven figures in the time he spent helping just me. Over the years, I have used the 'it's urgent' card rarely, particularly given his stature, but when I have, he is there - whether messaging me back in the middle of a class he is teaching, while seated before a judge at trial, or when standing at the gate at an airport, all just to make sure I'm okay.

I am not the only one. During one of our long conversations about this incident, he got a call and asked me if I could leave his office for twenty minutes and come back. As I left, I noticed a sealed plastic evidence bag next to his feet and I saw a uniformed police officer walk into his office. When I returned, the bag was gone, and I asked why law enforcement had come to his office. He said that he was representing a victim of a gang-rape and because she was too scared to talk to the police, he was giving a detective her clothes as evidence. I later met this brave woman and she confirmed what I already knew: Dean Sullivan helped her, too. There were other times in his office where I would see on a back shelf print- outs of what appeared to be iPhone text message screenshots or on another occasion a print-out of a very long statement he seemed to be editing carefully in red pen; when I asked him what he was working on, he told me he had an AdBoard sexual assault case he was helping out with. In each of these cases, he said he was representing the victim. Not the accused. I remember, because you don't forget the joy of knowing that others are being rescued in the way that you were.

Once as I was leaving his office, I asked his secretary how he has the time to take on these cases. She told me that he barely sleeps and spends most of his days on pro bono work, and that she tries to transfer email requests for pro bono representation all over the country into another folder so that he does not see them as they come in. She said she did this because she knew he was "a sucker for a sob story" and could never say no.

His fights are never about himself, and I know that he will attack the hand that feeds him and starve if it means justice. He is that stubborn about being consistent and ruthless in the exercise of one's duties and giving more than lip service to these legal cornerstones. To the extent that any potential overlap arises between his duties, all I have seen him do is take the student-victim side (like mine, or these other women's), rather than the student-assailant's. Given that his private client at issue is in New York, and his Winthrop House students are in Massachusetts, and there is no evidence of any overlap between the two, I believe that Dean Sullivan is not only able to perform all of these duties with the same obstinant protectiveness: his experience qualifies him to perform them even better. I wouldn't want a Dean who will listen, nod, validate me, then walk me to the Title IX office. I want the Dean who will listen, nod, validate me, represent me as one of the best criminal defense masterminds in America who would eviscerate the arguments of anyone who challenges me, to walk to me to the Title IX office. Wouldn't you?

The irony is that you will never hear from him about my story or these other countless women he has helped. Not even by reference. Not a word. His respect for confidentiality tracks attorney-client privilege, which is sacrosanct and survives death. He is, still, protecting us. The man who has rushed to so many people's defense refuses to publicize the one thing that will defend him now: that he has represented more victims in Harvard sexual assault cases than the accused, and that he has done so with a fire that makes victims like me feel no one else could have possibly come close in advocating for us. Sharing this would threaten the unconditional basis from which he helps people, which I believe is inspired by his faith and his ethics.

But I think you deserve to know. And I do not recognize the man you purport to be protesting. That is not the Sullivan that I know. I revere him as a sexual assault victim - what does it say about you for telling me I should fear him?

I cannot counter-protest at Harvard, nor can any of the other survivors Dean Sullivan has helped, because to do so would identify us. So, please, stop speaking for us. You are promoting the caricature of women as helpless beings without agency when you protest our ability to make choices about what we do with information about our attacks against our bodies and in whom we confide. All this does is set us back to a pre-Me Too era, in a way not unlike men making decisions about whether a woman can have an abortion or vote. I have spent much of my time since my assault advocating for other victims of sexual assault. I am confident that the current discourse, promoting overwhelming and convoluted analyses of what we should allow victims to do (premised on the idea that such decision-making power should be transferred away at all), will disincentive reporting. It is hard enough to muster the courage to disclose an incident like this without having to be concerned about whether your classmates will judge and undermine you for who you told.

The only voices that should matter in the manufactured debate of whether Dean Sullivan responds to sexual assault victims appropriately are those with any sort of authority on this issue, i.e., the victims who have disclosed to him. That is it. Everyone else should see their privilege and their place and step back to make room for the victims to express whether there are any concerns with his actual handling of our allegations.

So, please stop speaking for victims of sexual assault at Harvard, and do not take away our support in Dean Sullivan. You are disservicing victims and your protests do more harm than help us. You do not and will not stand for us. If you cannot see how your protests are rooted in a savior mentality and are totally obstructionist to a woman's independence of thought and agency, you do not deserve to speak on our behalf against a hero. You do not deserve Dean Sullivan.


  1. Did the Crimson give any reason for rejecting these two pieces?

    1. I don't know, but it would be surprising if they did -- newspapers don't generally explain their editors' rejections (in fact they often reject by not responding at all).