Georgetown University fires professor for violating a taboo on discussing Black academic performance

A conversation on the academic performance of Black law students between two faculty members teaching at Georgetown following a Zoom session was recorded and posted online without their knowledge.  As a result, one of them has been fired and tearfully apologized, while the other one is "on leave until the investigation by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action is complete" for failing to react in outrage over what the dean of the law school termed "reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students."  Both professors are adjunct faculty, meaning they are professionals brought in teach students with their real world experience, and they have no tenure protections.

Here is the 43 seconds of video that engendered the indignation:

The UK Daily Mail's description and transcription:

'They were a bit jumbled. It's like let me reason through that, what you just said,' Sellers said of a student's performance, who the Black Law Students Asssociation [sic] claims is the only black person in the class.

'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,' the adjunct professor of mediation and negotiation continued.  

'It happens almost every semester, and it's like, oh, come on. You know, we get some really good ones but there also usually some of them that are just plain at the bottom,' Sellers concludes. 

Batson, also a mediation law expert, does not initially respond but simply looks down and nods in the short 43-second clip, which was allegedly leaked to social media by a student.

He subsequently returns to discussing the student in question, stating, 'what drives [him] crazy is...the concept of how that plays out in whether that is [his] own perceptions playing in here with certain people' or '[his] own unconscious biases playing out in the scheme of things'.

While the syntax is fractured and almost incoherent in places, both professors seem distressed, not exultant, over the grading results, and they even question whether unconscious biases are at work.

Ex-professor Sellers during the Zoom call.
Is this the face of a racist or of a woman who is troubled by the reality she is describing? 
Twitter video screen grab — cropped.

But that is not how the Black Law Student Association sees it:

The Black Law Student Association had been among the groups calling for Sellers' resignation and an apology from Batson. 

The group issued a statement on Wednesday in which they claimed that the recorded conversation is proof of Sellers' bias in her grading of black students.

'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' bias has impacted the grades of black students in her classes historically, in her own words,' the statement said.

Here is statement from the dean of the law school, William Treanor, after he updated it:

To the Georgetown Law Community,

As I wrote to you last night, I am appalled that two members of our faculty engaged in a conversation that included reprehensible statements concerning the evaluation of Black students. I have further reviewed the incident and have now spoken to Professor Sellers and Professor Batson, giving each the opportunity to provide any additional context. I informed Professor Sellers that I was terminating her relationship with Georgetown Law effective immediately. During our conversation, she told me that she had intended to resign. As a result of my decision, Professor Sellers is no longer affiliated with Georgetown Law. Professor Batson has been placed on administrative leave pending the investigation by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action, the results of which will inform our next steps. Until the completion of the investigation, Professor Batson will have no further involvement with the course in which the incident arose.

We are taking significant steps to ensure that all students in this class are fairly graded without the input of Professor Sellers or Professor Batson.

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. This is a matter of great concern to me. I will be writing to you soon with a range of actions and changes that we will implement to address these issues. I will also send information about a listening session for the Georgetown Law student community that we plan to hold tomorrow.

Bill Treanor

As Paul Mirengoff noted, Dean Traynor does not say Professor Sellers is incorrect on the facts.  So, apparently, it is "reprehensible" to truthfully discuss the academic performance of Black least in the tone of voice the recording reveals.  That is the definition of a taboo.

One aggravating feature of the problem is affirmative action, which admits Blacks and Hispanics to highly competitive schools with lower grades and test scores than Whites and Asians who gain entry.  Hans Bader reflects on this, adding a personal note:

Black students get lower grades at selective colleges because they are admitted with lower grades and test scores than their non-black classmates, due to racial preferences in admissions at schools like Georgetown.

Recipients of non-racial preferences in admissions also get lower grades at the schools that admit them. I received lower-than-average grades as a student at Harvard Law School. Why? I was admitted with lower-than average credentials than most of my classmates (because I pledged to go into public-interest law afterwards). So I was less prepared than most of my classmates and occasionally had to struggle to keep up with my classmates. This did not mean I flunked out of school: I later passed the bar exam and played a key role in litigating three Supreme Court cases dealing with federalism and the constitutional separation of powers, one of which is discussed in the Washington Times.

This affirmative action consequence has been labeled as "mismatch," meaning that the purported beneficiaries are placed in schools where their chances of success are lower than those of the other groups admitted without preferences.  This results in lower grading performance and lower graduation rates, because they start from behind.  If the policy were designed to frustrate and anger Blacks, it could not be better constructed.  The outrage of the Black Law Student Association may be misplaced.  There is systemic racism at work, but it is the affirmative action programs that drive it, by putting Blacks in situations where they have fewer chances to succeed.

Paul Mirengoff comments on what may lie ahead:

Georgetown's diversity crew is going to investigate. Investigate what, though?

It could investigate the comparative performance of Black and White students at the law school to see whether Sellers' angst is based on facts or prejudice. However, I doubt the law school wants to go there.

Instead, Georgetown apparently will investigate whether Black students in Sellers' class are graded fairly. It's not clear how investigators will make this assessment, unless "fairly" means simply that Blacks fare as well as Whites in terms of grades.

The law school may want to go there. Quota grading might be its next frontier in the war on standards. In the name of "equity," of course.

As "equity" (meaning equal results, regardless of achievement) replaces "equality" (meaning equal opportunity for achievement), we are in store for an even more insidious situation, one that justifiably angers and frustrates Blacks even more.  If it becomes the rule that grading for Blacks is guided by quotas, not by academic achievement, people will inevitably assume that Blacks who achieve professional status based on academic achievement got their credentials as a result of quotas, not merit.  Who will want to be operated upon by a Black surgeon, or fly on an airplane with a Black pilot, if it becomes an open policy that standards are lower for Blacks?  In other words, prejudices against Blacks would be enflamed, and self-preservation would fuel the racism that tars all Blacks with brush of presumed underachievement.

This is a blind alley leading to a trap of racial conflict at the end.  Honesty is necessary before problems can really be solved.

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