The Precarious State of the Georgetown University Law Center
The Georgetown University Law Center is one of the top-ranked law schools in the country. And throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have many interactions with GULC. I presented there a dozen times, have published in three of their journals, and am a non-resident scholar at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. But if GULC continues on its current trajectory, I may no longer be able to speak, publish, or affiliate with the university. To be sure, Georgetown is not the only law school in such a precarious state. Rather, Georgetown is a canary in the coal mine. Recent events have revealed dangerous trends in legal academia.
Let’s start with the incident involving Professors Sandra Sellers and David Batson. GULC students shared a 40-second clip of the pair talking.
.@GeorgetownLaw negotiations Professors Sandra Sellers and David Batson being openly racist on a recorded Zoom call.
Beyond unacceptable. pic.twitter.com/q5MoWjBok8
— Hassan Ahmad (@hahmad1996) March 10, 2021
I’ve since learned some more context about the recording. At this point in the semester, the class had already drawn to a close. Sellers and Batson were in the process of grading the final assignments. And, like most people today, they were using Zoom to discuss their work. The professors were having what they thought was a confidential discussion about grades. Sellers said:
“You know what? 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.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”
However, Sellers and (the aptly named) Batson didn’t realize that their discussion would be saved on the Georgetown streaming server. The 40-second clip came around the 1:13:00 mark of a lengthy meeting. (You can see the timestamps on the left side of the screen.) Apparently, the video was on the server for about two weeks, and no one noticed. Then, at some point, one student found it, and shared the clip with others. And the recording snowballed from there.
I think the most important word in Sellers’s brief remarks is “angst.” Why does Sellers have angst? She does not say, but we can speculate about several possibilities. Perhaps she was concerned about performance by black students and would like them to do better, but didn’t know how to help. Or she may be doubting herself about why Black students are not performing better
There is another possibility. I think all professors–especially those in small classes without blind grading–are tuned into the campus culture concerning race. A professor who gives lower grades to Black students may be seen as giving lower grades because the students are Black. Under anti-racism teaching, unequal results are prima facie evidence of systemic racism. Sellers may have angst because she is worried that her grading will be viewed as racist. These fears may be what “drives [her] crazy.” Sellers may have been articulating a worry that all academics face: how would you handle allegations of racism, and minority students underperforming? If Sellers had this fear, her concerns were well-founded. The mere discussion of racial disparities in grading resulted in her immediate termination. This decision poses a dilemma. If it is impossible to discuss race-based disparities in grading, how can those disparities be addressed? The answer, of course, is that those issues can be discussed–but only by those with the proper motivations.
Consider the Georgetown Law Journal. (I published in GULC’s flagship journal in 2019). There are three ways to join the journal. First, 50% of members “will be selected solely on the basis of their Write On packet scores.” The policy states that “[t]he Write On packet score will weight students’ case comment score 60% and their Bluebook test 40%.” For this first category, grades play no part in the process. Second, 20% of members “will be selected on the basis of a formula that weighs Write On scores and grades equally.” And third, 30% of members “will be selected solely on the basis of a Personal Diversity Statement, provided that they have reached a certain threshold score on their Write On submission.” For this category, grades play no role in admission. And, presumably, the “threshold” for the Write On score in the third category is lower than the threshold in the first category. The Journal explains that “[t]he exact threshold score will vary from year to year, dependent on both the number of candidates who participate in the Write On Competition and the number of candidates who opt-in to apply to GLJ.” In short, nearly a third of the members will be admitted entirely on the basis of a diversity statement, without regard to grades, and who are likely subject to a lower Write On packet threshold.
This policy did not emerge out of thin air. Rather, I suspect the editors crafted these three specific paths after much deliberation. And part of those deliberation
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