Was Georgetown Law in the right when it fired an adjunct for “reprehensible” statements?

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Georgetown University Law Center fired an adjunct professor earlier this month for stating that some of her worst students are Black, and another adjunct resigned for not condemning the remarks. The firing has stirred controversy on both sides — with criticism from supporters of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the law schools’ black law student association upset it took the school four days before firing the adjunct.

Sandra Sellers made the remarks to David Batson after their negotiation and mediation class, but while Zoom was still recording.

“I hate to say this,” Sellers said in the recording. “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.’ You get some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

Batson responded: “Yep, and … and what drives me crazy is, you know, the concept of how that plays out. And whether that is, you know, my own perceptions playing in here and with certain people. My own, you know, my own unconscious biases playing out in this scheme of thing.” 

Sellers said the comments followed a longer discussion on class participation patterns. 

The video was reported to the school administration and posted on Twitter a few days later. 

Georgetown’s Black Law Students Association immediately called for Sellers’ firing and an investigation into her grading history. It also noted how such behavior is not isolated. 

“Not only is this situation revealing of Sellers’ true beliefs about Black students, it is also illustrative of the conscious and unconscious bias systemically present in law school grading at Georgetown Law and in law school classrooms nationwide. The difference is that Sellers was caught and her racism was broadcast for the world to see.” 

Bill Treanor, the dean of the law school, said he was “appalled that two members of our faculty engaged in a conversation that included reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students.” 

Treanor, who said he gave both professors the opportunity to provide additional context, fired Sellers four days after the video was reported to the administration and one day after it was posted on Twitter. 

Before being fired, Sellers was prepared to resign and offered apologies for her words, according to the Washington Post.

“I would never do anything to intentionally hurt my students or Georgetown Law and wish I could take back my words,” Sellers said in a resignation letter she shared with the newspaper. “Regardless of my intent, I have done irreparable harm and I am truly sorry for this.”

She said her comments were “the inarticulate reflection of long soul searching.”

Batson was also contrite in his resignation.

“When suddenly and unexpectedly faced with such remarks, it is challenging to know how to appropriately respond,” he wrote in his resignation letter, according to NBC News. “In the moment, my heartfelt response was to point the discussion toward what I believe is our personal responsibility — to be aware of and respond to potential unconscious bias in all our undertakings.”

Despite the firings, Maxine Walters, president of the Black Law Students Association, said the association was still upset with how slow the law school was to react.

“Obviously, we are happy that professor Sellers was terminated, but we’re really disappointed about the timeline and also the fact that just last night before the story had gotten as much coverage as it had, they sent out a statement saying they were just going to investigate,” she told the Chronicle for Higher Education. “They also didn’t even name the professors or explain what had happened. It was in our opinion a vague and hollow email that the dean had sent out.” 

But not every observer agrees that the comments were inappropriate. Alan Dershowitz, a political commentator and Harvard Law Professor, wrote in Newsweek that he disagreed that the comments were indicative of racism.

“During my 50 years at Harvard, I have overheard many conversations among faculty that mirror the angst that Sellers expressed. …The issue that Sellers and Batson were privately discussing is a real and serious one that must be addressed by all law schools, and indeed other institutions of higher learning,” he wrote. “By punishing both the speaker and the person who remained silent, the dean of Georgetown's law school sent a chilling message: if you are to participate in any discussion regarding grades and race, you must express the politically correct view of the matter.”

Robert Shibley, the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends rights of faculty members, wrote:

“When it comes to whether Sellers or Batson could or should have been punished by Georgetown Law, though, the answer is clear — under Georgetown’s own rules, the professors had the right to have that conversation, and they should not have been punished.”

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, School of Law, wrote that the most current study shows that Black law students do tend to cluster near the bottom of the class at most schools. 

“The phenomenon of a disproportionate number of black students being near the bottom of the class at many law schools appears to be real,” he wrote.

The controversy follows a difficult year for race relations due to the deaths of several African Americans — including George Floyd — at the hands of police. Black law students throughout the nation have called for their schools to institute changes to make schools more welcoming and supportive.

The case is similar to a 2018 situation at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in Philadelphia. A video surfaced of professor Amy Wax saying that she had never seen a Black student excel at the law school.

“I don't think I've ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the [Penn Law School] class and rarely, rarely in the top half. I can think of one or two students who've graduated in the top half of my required first-year course.” 

Outrage followed this and other controversial remarks, but Wax is tenured. The school punished her by not allowing her to teach a mandatory first-year course.

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