Jurisprudence

Black Georgetown Law Students Weren’t Surprised by a Professor’s Racist Remark

Why they feel the administration’s response was too little, too late.

A Georgetown University Law Center sign on campus
Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

Two professors at the Georgetown University Law Center had a racist conversation about the allegedly poor performance of “Blacks” in their class, a negotiations seminar, which was recorded and uploaded for those same students to view. In the video, recorded in February and posted to Twitter on Wednesday evening, professor Sandra Sellers complained, “I hate to say this—I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, oh, come on. It’s some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.” Professor David Batson, who co-taught the class, appeared to nod.

Advertisement

In an email sent to students on Wednesday night, Dean William Treanor described the remarks as “reprehensible” and “abhorrent” but did not say whether either professor had been disciplined. Then, on Thursday afternoon, Treanor informed students that he had fired Sellers (who then said she intended to resign). He also placed Batson on administrative leave pending an investigation. Both Sellers and Batson are adjunct professors who lack tenure protections; Sellers has taught at the school since 2003. (Disclosure: I attended GULC but did not take their class.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

It may seem that Treanor took swift action to address Sellers’ remarks. But multiple GULC students with firsthand knowledge told Slate that a student discovered the video on Sunday night and reported it to the administration on Monday morning. The administration did not publicly address it until after it was widely shared on Twitter, and after the Black Law Students Association released a statement calling on GULC to immediately fire Sellers. The BLSA also urged the administration to demand a public apology from Batson, improve its “subjective grading system,” audit Sellers’ “past grading and student evaluations,” and hire more Black professors. By Thursday afternoon, 51 student organizations at the school had signed on, as had 74 other Black law student associations around the country, nearly 800 current GULC students, and nearly 700 alumni (including me). The school’s Student Bar Association also issued a statement supporting the BLSA’s requests.

Advertisement

Last summer, the BLSA and the Student Bar Association called for mandatory implicit bias training for all faculty, but the administration refused to implement such a policy. In his Thursday email, Treanor said the school would continue “our work to address the many structural issues of racism reflected in this painful incident, including explicit and implicit bias, bystander responsibility, and the need for more comprehensive anti-bias training.”

Advertisement

In conversations with Slate, GULC students said they were pleased with Treanor’s response but dismayed by the delay. “I am not surprised by the racism exhibited by the university’s law professors,” said one first-year student, who is Black. (Like most students quoted in this piece, she asked that I not use her name for fear that GULC administrators or professors might retaliate.) She noted that the administration had been aware of the video before Wednesday, but “Georgetown only cares when there’s widespread national response.” And she said she was “deeply unimpressed” by what she called Treanor’s “performative allyship,” adding: “This was not the first complaint about such racist comments from this professor and others.”

Advertisement

A third-year student agreed that Treanor dragged his feet. “It’s always image control with this administration,” he said. “There are some incredible professors and staff here who do amazing work in the areas of race and gender and civil rights. But at higher levels, the only thing they care about is how many new centers and institutes they open, never any concern about common student issues.” He criticized the law school leaders’ “reckless disregard of the concerns of minority and first-generation students.”

Advertisement

Another third-year student pointed out that Sellers and Batson’s class was a participation-based course, “making Black students particularly susceptible to biased grading” given Sellers’ racist views. A quarter of the final grade is based on “pure class participation,” a highly subjective criterion that gives professors broad latitude to inject their personal prejudices into the grading process. Alarmingly, Sellers made her statement while she and Batson were evaluating a Black student’s performance in class.

Advertisement

Chase Woods, another Black first-year student, sounded a note of cautious optimism in light of Sellers’ termination. “Generally, I am pleased with this action,” he said. Based on his prior experiences at other universities “trying to navigate” similar incidents, he didn’t expect that any “substantive action” would be taken. But he added that “there are elements of this that are deeply troubling and, to me, illustrate how far removed we all are from the urgency of last summer.” During 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the university indicated its support for genuine racial justice. “What happened to everyone’s commitment to dismantle white supremacy nine months ago?” the student asked. “Are we just back to people and institutions issuing PR statements and offering platitudes after getting caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar?”

Advertisement

One third-year student agreed that there is a chasm between the administration’s words and actions. “The administration, especially Treanor, always want to seem progressive and caring, but they take every opportunity to sit on the fence and leave their students out,” she said, pointing to the prominent role on campus of the right-wing Federalist Society. “They let Fed Soc run amok trying to get attention by hosting insensitive events,” such as an event about “a multi-ethnic working class conservatism” hosted by three white men.

Vanessa, a Black first-year student, told me that while GULC has a diverse student body, its faculty is “very white,” which often creates an awkward, unpleasant, or even painful classroom dynamic.

Advertisement

“I think we do Black law students a disservice by putting them in situations where they have to deal with racism with no safeguards in place,” she said. “There was an orientation session in the fall where they essentially told us not to take it personally if professors make offensive comments and let them ‘play devil’s advocate.’ However, professors don’t have any racial sensitivity training sessions, even though BLSA and SBA have asked for that on multiple occasions.”

“I found this whole situation pretty discouraging,” Vanessa added. “I fear that many of our professors might be evaluating us from a racist perspective and without evidence like this. And we just have to live with the consequences.”

Update, March 11, 2021: This article originally stated that two participants at the GULC Federalist Society’s event on “a multi-ethnic working class conservatism” had the same last name. An official advertisement for the event stated that two participants shared a last name, but it was an error.

Advertisement