The Georgetown Outrage: Killing the Messenger Hurts Black Students

The specter of Madame Defarge, the blood-thirsty chronicler of severed heads in the French Revolution, hangs heavy over American universities. She just made an appearance at Georgetown Law School. Nowadays, heads don’t fall into baskets, but heads do roll, and careers, reputations, and personal lives are torn asunder by marauding woke progressives. Where can the beheaded turn for help?

Three years ago, I resigned as a trustee (emeritus) at the University of Pennsylvania and as an Overseer of its law school. I quit because Amy Wax, a tenured law professor, lost her first-year teaching privileges after observing that her black students performed poorly—mostly in the bottom half of the class—over many years. Ted Ruger, Dean of Penn Law School, was quick to condemn her but still has not produced any evidence to prove Wax wrong. He brooks no questioning of Penn’s diversity agenda.

Fast forward to today. Top-tier Georgetown Law School summarily fired Sandra Sellers, an adjunct professor, for commenting to her colleague David Batson about the academic performance of black students. Georgetown also suspended Batson pending further investigation. Evoking a Maoist struggle session, students called for his public apology for not condemning the purportedly racist statement of his colleague, and he quickly offered his resignation.

What was Sellers’ crime, which Georgetown dean William Treanor labeled “reprehensible” and “abhorrent”? She noticed the same pattern that Amy Wax had seen, something that would concern any decent professor or administrator, namely: why does a specific group of students underperform? An incompetent admissions department? Poor academic support? The glib virtue-signaling of lambasting and firing the professor for her concern is academic malfeasance overdue for a reckoning. And that reckoning would only be for the academic benefit of the very students that the feckless “anti-racist” deans claim they are protecting.

Professor Wax’s comments occurred on a podcast with Glenn Loury, a black professor of economics at Brown University, who himself opposes affirmative action. In this latest event, however, comments made in what appears to be a private conversation, fortuitously recorded at the end of an online class, are the basis for the firing and suspension.

Academic social justice warriors are expanding their tools and methods to catch and punish those who deviate in any way, even inadvertently, from their shibboleths and orthodoxies. On July 4, last year—note the irony of the date—hundreds of Princeton faculty signed onto a letter to Princeton’s president with demands that included, “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” One wonders when woke students, faculty, and administrators will adopt even more Stasi-like techniques as they snoop on their colleagues and turn them in for ritual denunciation and punishment.

Like the Orwellian Ministry of Love, where dissenters are tortured psychologically until they endorse and believe in Big Brother’s regime, campus repression is working. Sellers’ scaffold speech was, “Regardless of my intent, I have done irreparable harm, and I am truly sorry for this.” Batson lamented that he had not responded more directly to her. Sellers did no harm: the harm was done by the woke who terrorize the campus into silence and break the spirit of professors, diminishing their roles as teachers and mentors.

I am sad to note that since June of 2018, when I left the Penn board in protest, there is no public record of any trustee, anywhere, resigning in protest over the treatment of students or faculty at American universities. If our leaders do not speak up, there’s little chance for those mistreated to vindicate their rights, and the need for help seems more urgent by the day. Donors need to close their wallets, trustees need to fire administrators who show their contempt for freedom of speech and due process, and if that is not possible, they should take their expertise and their philanthropy somewhere else.

The absence of leadership is one of the most disturbing elements in the struggle to restore honesty and integrity to academic communities. Canceling faculty like Professor Wax and Professor Sellers, who “notice,” ask questions, and seek answers for sub-optimal student performance, is the real campus crime. There are too many historical examples of what happens when fine people fail to respond to repression. We have not yet reached the point where individuals fear for their physical safety; that they cling so fearfully to their status and employment is a sad sign of how much repression is already afoot in the place where fearless pursuit of truth should be a cause for honor, not shame and exile.


Image: Lucas Cantor, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

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Paul S. Levy

Mr. Levy is the founder of the investment firm JLL Partners and serves on the Board of Directors of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

7 thoughts on “The Georgetown Outrage: Killing the Messenger Hurts Black Students

  1. The unspeakable reality is that nobody really cares about turning out incompetent black lawyers. Even elite law firms that hire them will insulate clients from their shortcomings. Many will work for the government and their weaknesses will hardly be noticed. Imagine, instead, if these were medical school students in a class dealing with the diseases of elderly males. Many senior administrators might take notice.

    1. Well, as to affirmative action and medical school, there is always the minority student who got Alan Baake’s seat in medical school: http://www.jeffjacoby.com/10931/affirmative-action-can-be-fatal

      Yep, his license was *revoked* for “failing to provide the most basic of medical care” to his patients.

      And as to incompetent lawyers — those are only the ones who somehow managed to pass the bar exam. A lot more either don’t or decide not to even try — and a lot of those wind up as academic administrators. Non-lawyers think that they actually know something, and no one ever notices that there is no record of them ever having a law license in this or any other state…

  2. “We have not yet reached the point where individuals fear for their physical safety…”

    That Rubicon was crossed at least 20 years ago — Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College and Professor Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College come to mind in terms of actual violence, and there are less publicized examples, but in terms of fear itself — *lots* of professors do, and have for years.

    And then when you go further and discuss the staff and students, there is no shortage of fear nor legitimate reasons to be afraid. Countless secretaries have been physically assaulted by the violent mobs that march into administrative buildings, and students have dropped out of college in fear of their lives. Where do you think Antifa came from — do you remember the BAMN* activists of the 1990s and chairs being thrown at a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights?

    We LONG AGO reached the point where individuals fear for their physical safety.

    * The Committee to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary, usually calling itself BAMN, and I was on their mailing list for a while (under a machine-direct address that they didn’t know was me) and they were *scary* – and they have since evolved into Antifa…

  3. Paul Levy eloquently states what many believe to be true, but they are engaged in self-silencing because of fear of the woke mob. My contributions to Andover, Princeton, and Harvard total $0.

    1. Unfortunately, you need to go one step further and refuse to hire the graduates of Andover, Princeton, and Harvard — the untold secret is that schools have shifted from relying on alumni dollars to dollars from their current students (and their ability to borrow).

      This foolishness will only end when students (and their parents) stop being willing to pay for it, and that will only end when employers finally realize that these schools aren’t what they were 50 years ago. Students tolerate this stuff as the price they have to pay in order to get hired in a good job — if that wasn’t happening, this stuff wouldn’t be as well…

      1. Employers are beginning to realize that these schools aren’t what they used to be. I just took a look at the U.S. News rankings of the top engineering schools in 2022. I was appalled at who was listed in the top 25. Sure, people know about the MIT and University of Michigan engineering schools. But who thinks Columbia, Harvard, or John Hopkins are among the nations’ top engineering schools? The University of California at San Diego is the 9th best engineering school in the nation? Really?

        Digging a bit deeper it turns out 40% of the U.S. News ranking is based on just two factors: 1) assessment by deans of other engineering schools (25%) and 2) recruiter assessment surveys from companies/employers (15%). So the dean of engineering school A is evaluating engineering school B—and visa versa. No chance of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” there. And want to take a guess which companies are surveyed for the recruiter assessments? Why the list of companies to survey is provided to U.S. News by the engineering schools. Gosh, I wonder which companies get picked.

        You know these schools use those bogus rankings to dupe students into attending and parents to fork over tuition money. But thankfully companies are not so easily fooled. Harvard is known for its law school and business school. But after all of my years in engineering I can tell you nobody looks to it for the best and brightest engineer talent. Hopefully parents will wake up soon.

      2. Patti —

        One of the things that Margaret Spellings (Bush 43’s second Secretary of Education) was trying to do was establish a college rating system based on graduate salaries.

        Beyond the fact that no wants parents to know that students majoring in things like “Gender and Sexuality Studies” tend not to make a lot of money upon graduation, the problem with doing this is that there is so much variance between undergraduate major and postgraduate employment within the alumni cohort of just one institution, let alone the academy as a whole. The other wild card is that some graduates chose to get married and be home with their young children immediately after graduation — only entering the workforce a decade or more later after their children are grown.

        But with something like engineering — where there are specific professional licenses with specific educational qualifications — it probably would be fairly easy to establish a rating based on starting salaries.

        As to Spellings’ proposal, I didn’t hear anything more about it after Obama was inaugurated. Nor am I surprised — if parent’s knew how many people with college degrees were waiting tables, they’d have serious second thoughts about paying the bursar’s bill…

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