Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Sandra Sellers, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center, was forced to resign because she was caught on video saying to her colleague and co-teacher David Batson: “I hate to say this… I ended 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? Got some really good ones but there’s usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy. Of course there are the good ones… but come on…” Batson appeared in the video nodding embarrassedly.
The video was a class recording which is only accessible to students in the class and is password protected. The conversation took place after students had logged out and the professors, unaware that the recording of the class ran for 10 minutes after the end of class time, thought they were having a private conversation. A student (not enrolled in the class) posted the video on Twitter and it instantly got thousands of retweets. In response, the dean acted by first referring the culprit professors to the university’s Equity and Diversity Committee for investigation and then, after the Black Law Student Association of Georgetown (BLSA) issued a statement declaring what was said was racist and demanding that Sellers be fired, he terminated Professor Sellers’s contract. Batson was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Diversity Committee, which will also investigate whether the professors’ alleged bias affected the grades they gave their students. He later resigned. The dean described the conversation between him and Sellers as “abhorrent.”
What was interesting was what ensued afterwards. The black faculty at Georgetown Law issued a statement denouncing what Sellers said, describing it as “grounded in white supremacist thought.” The statement argued that Sellers’s comments amounted to a stereotype about black students that inevitably had a negative effect on their performance and called for revisiting all the grades awarded by her. The statement insisted that her comments were not “unique” as the “legacy of white supremacy is insidious” and called on professors who “operate from unspoken white supremacist notions… to examine their own flawed thought patterns and correct them.” A black professor called for non-black faculty to issue a statement “not necessarily in support of the letter already written, but from the position of their privilege within racialized spaces like the classroom” and wondered “in what numbers would such a letter be supported and with what reservations?” Quickly and on cue, a statement by the non-black faculty was drafted in which the signatories “acknowledge[d] [their] responsibility as non-Black faculty members to engage in the constant work of examining and revising [their] own flawed premises.” They also “acknowledge[d] the many levels at which [they] must confront ongoing white supremacist notions underlying ideas of merit that may contaminate assessment and performance.” This sentiment was repeated four times in the statement, each time drafted slightly differently but making the same point. Close to every member of Georgetown Law’s non-black faculty (and others) signed the letter.
I, and a few others, withheld our signatures.
In the face of this overwhelming support by the non-black faculty, two white professors of the boomer generation with plenty of progressive credentials pushed back.