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Georgetown University Law Center students are calling for structural reform within the Law Center after a viral video revealed a law professor voicing racist views about Black students.
The 43-second clip of adjunct professors Sandra Sellers and David Batson, posted by a Law Center student via Twitter on March 10, showed Sellers complaining about the academic performance of the Black students in her joint negotiations class with Batson. The video sparked outrage on social media as well as a petition from the Black Law Students Association that amassed over 1,900 signatures and a statement from the Law Center’s Black faculty. The Law Center terminated Sellers on March 11, and Batson announced his resignation the following day.
In the video, Sellers made several racist comments about Black students who have taken her and Batson’s class.
“I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester,” Sellers said in the Zoom class recording. “It’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? I get some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”
Students found the video of what Sellers believed to be a private conversation with Batson at the end of class on Canvas the weekend of Feb. 19. It remained on Canvas for two weeks before students discovered it March 7 and reported it to the Law Center deans the following day, according to Hassan Ahmad who shared the video on Twitter.
Several student organizations and affinity groups responded to the video on social media over the weekend, calling on the Law Center to cut ties with Sellers and demanding a public apology from Batson. In the statement released March 11, BLSA demanded the immediate termination of Sellers and a commitment from the university to improve its current grading system, including an audit of Seller’s past grading, and the hiring of more Black professors.
GULC currently implements a mandatory curve in its grading, which allows conscious and unconscious systemic bias in its grading system, historically enabling professors to grade Black students subjectively, according to the statement.
“The difference is that Sellers was caught and her racism was broadcast for the world to see,” the statement reads. “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.”
While Sellers’ termination was the right step, the Law Center’s delayed response was disappointing, according to BLSA President Maxine Walters (LAW ’21).
“Because everything was recorded, we were unclear as to what exactly was taking so long for the school to take action, especially since it’s been revealed that they had this video several days before we actually got it,” Walters said in a phone interview with the Hoya.
The university is committed to addressing all instances and allegations of racism by effectively evaluating and pursuing the appropriate response, according to a Georgetown Law spokesperson.
“When the University is made aware of any conduct that may violate institutional policies, it addresses the reported conduct, including by investigating the allegations thoroughly,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
In response to the video, the Law Center’s administrators terminated all relations with Sellers and had planned to launch an investigation into Batson’s actions before his resignation, according to a statement from William Treanor, dean and executive vice president of the Law Center.
“This is by no means the end of 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,” Treanor wrote in the statement.
The administration has also implemented a “fair and compassionate” grading system in which anonymous professors familiar with the course subject will finish all grading for the course, according to Treanor.
Without structural reforms, such as implementing a formalized bias reporting system, beginning to change the racist structural foundations of the Law Center will be difficult, according to the Student Bar Association President Olivia Hinerfeld (LAW ’21).
“It’s very much word-of-mouth type stories that are passed down from affinity group member to affinity group member and mentor to mentee, and I think that’s part of the problem,” Hinerfeld said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “Just in the last 48 hours, I’ve been hearing anecdotally from alums that there are lots of other stories and complaints, even just about these two professors from this one class.”
The incident had immediate consequences for Black students at the Law Center who already struggle with racism, according to Quincey Wilson (LAW ’23).
“It’s already hard as it is being a law student in general,” Wilson said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “But to have other pressure on you as a Black student, to feel that no matter how hard you’re working, some professors like professor Sellers can look down on you or give you a worse review just because of the color of your skin — it’s depressing is what it is.”
In addition to facing the challenges of racism at the Law Center, Black students are an underrepresented group at the Law Center. In 2018, Black students accounted for only 9.2% of Juris Doctor candidates at the law school.
In response to the video, Black professors at the Law Center condemned Sellers’ remarks and supported the Law Center’s Black students in a statement tweeted by professor Alicia Plerhoples on March 11.
The statement aimed to show support for students rather than seek repercussions for the involved professors, according to Plerhoples.
“It really was a matter of making sure that our students know that they’re supported, that when they have claims laid against them deriding their capabilities and their intellectual capabilities, those claims wouldn’t stand unconfronted by people in positions of authority,” Plerhoples said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
BLSA and the SBA proposed a resolution calling for a critical race theory unit in all first-year criminal justice courses, mandatory faculty training on implicit bias and a bias reporting system last July, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a nationwide racial reckoning.
The Law Center has yet to implement any of the initiatives demanded by the SBA in July, which could have prevented the incident in the video, according to Wilson.
“I think that this incident is representative of that failure to act, because it could have been avoided if they would’ve taken the measures to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but like we saw last year, this incident is not happening in a microcosm,” Wilson said. “This is a continuation of a reckoning, a racial reckoning. We are really just seeing for the first time this happening on video, but there are countless other conversations that we would never see.”
Black students’ belonging at the Law Center must be emphasized following the incident, according to Wilson.
“I think that anyone who is Black and has seen this incident needs to know that their worth is not diminished,” Wilson said. “I feel that they just need to pursue and pursue and pursue because the end goal is what matters. The fact that we are in these spaces is the goal. We need to be in these spaces to bring change, and I feel that we just need to boost each other up and tell each other that we belong here.”
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949), Counseling and Psychiatric Services (202-687-6985) and the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (202-687-4054); additional off-campus resources include Crisis Text Line (text 741741) and the District of Columbia ACLU (202-457-0800).