Faculty in the School of Foreign Service drafted a petition calling on administrators to combat systemic racial inequalities at Georgetown University and outside the campus gates.
The petition, drafted June 12, follows weeks of protests against police brutality and racial injustice provoked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police May 25. The protests, which have spread globally, have inspired discussions about how to address racial inequities in the classroom and the workplace. The petition, a product of these renewed discussions, has garnered 117 faculty signatures and 718 student and graduate signatures as of June 16, when the petition closed.
The SFS must live up to its commitments to justice and equality by enacting reforms to address racial inequities within the program, according to the petition.
“SFS holds the promise of rejecting a global order built on inequality. However, it has fallen short,” the petition reads. “For racial justice to be prioritized, the school must confront how whiteness informs its underlying values, guiding everything from how financial decisions are made to the students who are admitted, the faculty that are hired, and the classes that are taught.”
The recent push for reforms follows informal efforts by some faculty in past years to make the SFS curriculum and faculty more racially diverse, according to Arab studies professor Fida Adely, one of the petition’s lead authors.
“This is an opportunity to revisit these concerns we had then and to kind of take advantage of the moment when everyone is being forced to reckon with systemic racism and systems of inequality that universities are a big part of reproducing,” Adely said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
The nation’s top academic institutions are staffed by predominantly white faculty. The proportion of white faculty in many top schools is significantly higher than the proportion of white Americans overall. The SFS is also plagued by this lack of faculty diversity, according to Adely.
“I think Georgetown has had a more explicit commitment to diversity in hiring, but it’s one thing to kind of make that commitment and it’s another thing to operationalize it,” Adely said. “Who teaches matters.”
Lacking diverse faculty, SFS students risk losing invaluable, distinct perspectives on the topics they study, according to international relations professor Nicole Bibbins Sedaca.
“The more our students understand a multiplicity of ways at looking at different problems, the better equipped they’re going to be to launch into complex, multifaceted, diverse world and to be able to navigate that world with the right skills,” Bibbins Sedaca said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
There are significant institutional obstacles to diversifying faculty, according to Bibbins Sedaca. For one, the SFS recruits academics from the nation’s top doctoral programs, which themselves often lack diversity. Many academics of color also encounter flagrant racism in graduate programs, Adely added.
Georgetown — and the SFS in particular — must commit to tackling these structural discrepancies by ensuring academics of color are granted a fair shot at career advancement, according to Bibbins Sedaca.
“We must ensure that if there is an excellent African American who is a specialist on NATO or a specialist on the transatlantic that they have as many opportunities as white faculty to bring their expertise and their brilliance,” she said.
The school’s lack of diversity is also present on the student level. Overall, around 50% of Georgetown students are white, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 6% of Georgetown students are Black.
This lack of student diversity stems from deep-seated educational inequalities and university admissions practices that disadvantage poor and minority students. University reliance on standardized test scores and legacy admission tends to disadvantage and disincentivize minority applicants. Some graduate programs at Georgetown have made standardized testing optional in an effort to diversify the applicant pool, according to Adely.
In the coming weeks, the faculty who drafted the petition will discuss next steps and develop concrete plans to achieve greater student, faculty and curricular diversity.
“It’s one thing to publicize a commitment, but it really needs to be followed up with concrete steps,” Adely said. “What’s going on in our country right now and around the globe, this outpouring of protest against the continued status quo of violence and killing of Black Americans, that has really pushed all of us to think, ‘We can do more.’”
The SFS administration has stated its willingness to reform.
“Since we prepare women and men at SFS for service to the world, it is our obligation to continuously question how our school can do better to meet the challenges that have sparked such outrage,” SFS Dean Joel Hellman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I am eager to get recommendations that come organically from the SFS community to help us promote racial justice.”
Professor Scott Taylor, the director of the African studies program, expressed optimism about the petition and a hope for future progress on tackling racial injustice.
“I am delighted, inspired and overwhelmed that my non-African American colleagues have deemed issues of racial justice, acknowledgement of white privilege, and SFS’ historically tenuous commitment to same, sufficiently important to demand change,” Scott wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I’m also truly encouraged by the many SFS faculty colleagues, students, and alumni who have signed the petition. After 100 years of SFS, we may be, at last, on the cusp of genuine progress.”
This is a developing story.