Sit down, this one’s a doozy. In an incident that could only happen in our Zoom world, two law professors at Georgetown University Law Center were recorded analyzing the performance of a Black student in a class they jointly teach. It’s, well… it’s something else.
Most of the speaking goes to Professor Sandra Sellers while Professor David Batson just seems to nod in agreement, but, wow, is this some shocking stuff. Anyway, here it goes:
“You know what? I hate to say this…”
[Don’t worry, she’s going to anyway]
“I end up having this, you know, angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, oh come on, you know? There are some really good ones, but there are also some that are just plain at the bottom and drives me crazy.”
You can watch the clip for yourself.
The Georgetown Black Law Students Association’s statement (with the support of a number of other campus student groups, other BLSA chapters, and GULC students) on the incident calls out the attitudes of Sellers as being specifically harmful to, not only the specific Black student they were discussing, but all Black students Sellers has ever taught:
These racist statements reveal not only Sellers’ beliefs about Black students in her classes, but also how her racist thoughts have translated to racist actions. Professor Sellers’s bias has impacted the grades of Black students in her classes historically, in her own words.
And they don’t absolve Batson for his role in the video:
Further, the other professor in the video, David Batson, initially nodded in agreement with several of Sellers’ statements. Batson subsequently stated that, “what drives [him] crazy is…the concept of how that plays out in whether that is [his] own perceptions playing in here with certain people” or “[his] own unconscious biases playing out in the scheme of things.” While these comments certainly show more awareness than that of Professor Sellers, his actions were still altogether insufficient to address the blatant racism that he was an audience to. He had an obligation to report her, and he did not. We demand that Batson publicly apologize for his role in enabling and supporting Sellers’ behavior.
BLSA’s demands include firing Sellers and an apology from Batson:
We demand that Georgetown Law take action in the form of:
- The immediate termination of Professor Sandra Sellers;
- requiring a public apology from Professor David Batson in his failure to adequately condemn Sellers’ statements;
- critically assessing and improving its current subjective grading system, including an audit of Professor Sellers’ past grading and student evaluations to account for her admitted biases; and
- committing to hiring more Black professors who will be better situated to fairly assess Black students in a non-biased manner.
My former colleague, Elie Mystal, is not super optimistic about the chances of real consequences being handed out, seeing as there’s a long history of law school professors getting away with… some awful shit while wrapping themselves in the cloak of academic freedom. And BLSA’s letter calls out Georgetown’s own record of (not) dealing with a professor who used the n-word in class (while teaching at a different law school, but still associated with GULC).
I pretty much always think “academic freedom” is trotted out in these situations to absolve people with “impressive” resumes of racism. But I can imagine/naively hope it won’t gain much traction here. After all, Sellers’s comments were not in furtherance of an academic point or scholarship but rather some offensive race-based musings she mistakenly believed were transmitted privately to a sympathetic audience of one. (And arguments that use racism in service to supposedly neutral “scholarship” are probably worse than the problematic views expressed here — since Sellers is at least saying that it causes her “angst,” which, compared to the Amy Wax awfulness is actually an improvement — but my main point is that Sellers would be hard pressed to used “academic freedom” to escape responsibility in this case.)
Let’s see what the law school has to say about all this. Dean William Treanor released a statement (available in full on the next page) acknowledging how hurtful the entire incident has been, and promising to respond “with the utmost seriousness” and noting that the University’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action will begin an investigation:
We learned earlier this week that two members of our faculty engaged in a conversation that included reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students. We are responding with the utmost seriousness to this situation. I have watched a video of this conversation and find the content to be abhorrent. It includes conduct that has no place in our educational community. We must ensure that all students are treated fairly and evaluated on their merits.
We are taking this incident extremely seriously. Upon hearing of it, I immediately engaged the University’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action, which is undertaking a thorough investigation. The Law School is also pursuing additional responses and will act swiftly and seriously to address this incident.
Well, it’s not great that it opens up acknowledging the law school was aware of the incident, but made no statement until it went viral. Hopefully (again, perhaps naively), something will be done — and quickly — about this disturbing incident and the racist beliefs it illuminated.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).