Georgetown Law School terminated an adjunct professor Thursday after a video was posted on social media showing her making disparaging comments about Black students in a recorded conversation with another professor.
The professor, Sandra Sellers, is shown in the recording making negative comments about Black students’ academic performance. The comments came at the end of a session of a class she taught jointly with the other professor and which was recorded for future viewing by students.
“I hate to say this,” Sellers says in the video recording of her conversation with another Georgetown law professor, David Batson. “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.”
Bill Treanor, dean of the law school, said in a statement Thursday that Sellers had been terminated and that Batson had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the university's Office of Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action.
“I am appalled that two members of our faculty engaged in a conversation that included reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students,” Treanor said in a written statement. He added that Baston "will have no further involvement with the course in which the incident arose" until after completion of the investigation. He also said the law school is “taking significant steps to ensure that all students in this class are fairly graded without the input of Professor Sellers or Professor Batson.”
The Black Law Students Association had previously called for Sellers’s immediate termination after the video was made public on Wednesday, writing in a letter that Georgetown “must take swift and definitive action in the face of blatant and shameless racism.”
The association also called for a public apology from Batson for “his failure to adequately condemn Sellers’ statements,” for a review of the "current subjective grading system," including an audit of Sellers’ past grading and student evaluations, and for a commitment to hire more Black professors, “who will be better situated to fairly assess Black students in a non-biased manner.”
“Professor Sellers was speaking in reference to the only Black student in her class,” says the letter from the Black Law Students Association. “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.”
Sellers could not be reached by Inside Higher Ed for comment. The Washington Post quoted a letter in which she apologized for the “hurtful and misdirected remarks,” which she made as part of a discussion about patterns in class participation.
“I would never do anything to intentionally hurt my students or Georgetown Law and wish I could take back my words,” Sellers wrote in the letter. “Regardless of my intent, I have done irreparable harm and I am truly sorry for this.”
Batson did not respond to a request for comment.
Treanor, the law dean, said in his statement that he would be writing again soon "with a range of actions and changes that we will implement" in order 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."
Of Georgetown Law's 2,021 J.D. students in fall 2020, 185 identified as Black or African American, according to university data. In 2019-20, 103 of the law school's 831 full-time and part-time faculty members identified as minorities. (The faculty data are not broken down by racial or ethnic category.)
Maxine Walters, president of the Black Law Students Association, said the university has not yet acted on a resolution the association endorsed in July calling for a racial justice course requirement for students, mandatory faculty training on implicit bias, and a bias reporting system.
Walters said the university's handling of Sellers' comments was disappointing.
"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. 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," Walters said.
"Luckily today the professors were named and there was action taken," she added. "We’re happy with that, but we're not satisfied and we’re still going to be in communication with them about the other demands in the statement.”