In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” set in the late 1990s, college professor Coleman Silk is forced out of academia after being baselessly accused of racism.
While taking attendance one day, Silk inquired aloud about two students who had failed to attend any of his classes for the first five weeks of the semester. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Silk asked.
The two students happened to be black (something Silk did not know, since he had never seen them), and upon learning of Silk’s remark, they accused him of racism and insisted he be fired. Of course, Silk had not used the word “spooks” as a racial slur but to mean invisible spirits or ghosts.
Although Roth’s book was written over 20 years ago, it presciently foresaw today’s cultural phenomenon where every statement, however benign and accurate, must be refracted through a lens of isms and phobias.
In a story that mirrors the plot of Roth’s acclaimed novel, Professor Sandra Sellers, a 20-year veteran of the Georgetown Law Center, was recently fired for saying, during a Zoom conversation with another professor with whom she was co-teaching a negotiations course, that she felt “angst” because “every semester” many of her lower grade-earners were black. In the video, Batson said nothing in response to Sellers’ remark.
According to CNN, the conversation between Sellers and her colleague — Professor David Batson — took place after a lecture that was conducted via Zoom. All class lectures were continuously recorded until everyone left the Zoom call, but because Sellers and Batson remained on the call, it kept recording and was eventually uploaded for students to watch.
Despite the potential veracity of Sellers’ remark, it was immediately cast as racist because it was unflattering to a historically marginalized group. The left wasted no time in grabbing their pitchforks.
In a letter to the law school’s administration, the Georgetown Black Law Student Association characterized Sellers’ remarks as “blatant and shameless racism.”
It also falsely claimed that, in the video, Sellers admitted to deliberately placing black students “at the bottom of the grading curve.”
.@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
Let’s be clear: in the video, Sellers never said she gave lower grades to black students because of their race. Had she done so, her actions not only would have violated the law, but would have been morally repugnant. Her ouster in such circumstances would have been well-deserved and appropriate.
To date, no evidence has been presented by anyone that Sellers ever engaged in racial discrimination in her grading. Of course, inconvenient facts should never stand in the way of a good witch hunt.
The BLSA also castigated Batson for “initially nodd[ing] in agreement with several of Sellers’ statements.” Apparently, the BLSA would have preferred if Batson had leapt from his chair, pounded his shoe on the table and vociferously challenged Sellers’ concern about her students’ scholastic performance.
However, Batson’s main sin, according to the BLSA, was that he “had an obligation to report [Sellers], and he did not.”
The student group’s demands were straightforward and severe: “We demand nothing short of the immediate termination of Sandra Sellers as adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Not suspension. Not an investigation.”
The BLSA Executive Board released this statement regarding Professor Sandra Sellers’ racist remarks towards Black students at GULC and Professor David Batson’s complicity upon hearing those remarks. In the statement, we make explicit demands for the GULC administration. pic.twitter.com/nAx1jDE37G
— Georgetown BLSA (@GeorgetownBLSA) March 11, 2021
That these future lawyers insisted punishment be meted out based on false allegations without any investigation is bad. Doesn’t the BLSA recognize that a rush to judgment based on unfounded accusations is what led to the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five and countless others?
What’s worse, however, is how quickly the law school capitulated to their demands.
In a letter dated March 10, the school’s dean and executive vice president, Bill Treanor, said Sellers’ observation of grade patterns, and Batson’s failure to condemn her for doing so, was “abhorrent” and “reprehensible” conduct that “has no place in our educational community.”
In a follow-up letter the next day, Treanor announced that he had fired Sellers “effective immediately.”
And, Georgetown’s Central Committee apparently agreed that Batson should have finked on his colleague, because the March 11 letter stated Batson had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the school’s Institutional Office of Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action — a multi-nominal title worthy of the GDR.
According to the Georgetown University Faculty Handbook, allegations of racism are supposed to be subject to a procedure that is designed to allow for “a prompt, fair, and impartial investigation and resolution of grievances of discrimination.”
But, the handbook also says if “an allegation of Faculty Misconduct requires immediate action that cannot wait for normal processes of review because a faculty member’s conduct currently poses a serious risk to safety or to the effective operations of the University, the Executive Vice President may place the faculty member on administrative leave with pay.”
Neither Sellers’ discussion of racial disparities in grades nor Batson’s failure to “report” her to the school’s secret police for doing so presented a risk, let alone a serious one, to either the safety or the effective operations of the law school.
Moreover, even if they did, the handbook only allows for suspension with pay, not summary dismissal, which is what happened to Sellers here.
The recommended regulations of the American Association of University Professors provides that dismissal of a faculty member before the end of a term must be preceded by an investigation, and must be accompanied by notice of specific charges and an opportunity to be heard.
Sellers’ dismissal without any formal charges, faculty investigation or hearings transgressed both Georgetown’s policies and the AAUP guidelines.
If there’s a moral that students can draw from this incident, it might be this: neither facts nor rules matter.
That’s quite a message for a law school of all things to impart.
And for those who actually work in the ivory tower, the message was slightly different:
If you say unpopular things, regardless of their truth, you will be punished. If you remain silent while others say unpopular things, you will be punished. And if you falsely accuse others of saying unpopular things, you will be rewarded.
Is this academia or the Gulag?
Treanor, who, as a career academic is plainly an apparatchik of the left, lamented that the episode reflected “structural issues of racism” within the law school, “including explicit and implicit bias, bystander responsibility, and the need for more comprehensive anti-bias training.”
Someone should tell the dean that a better use of the school’s time and resources would be to train its students about the importance of due process and careful fact-finding, and how adherence to the rule of law protects against miscarriages of justice due to moral panics.
In “The Human Stain,” Professor Silk states, “It used to be the person who fell short. Now it’s the discipline. Reading the classics is too difficult, therefore it’s the classics that are to blame. Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege. I can’t learn it, so there is something wrong with it. And there is something especially wrong with the bad teacher who wants to teach it. There are no more criteria … only opinions.”
How fiction has become reality.
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