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After controversies, Georgetown Law students call for culture shift

Students say recent events underscore a culture in which the needs of racial and religious minorities are often ignored

The McDonough building on campus of Georgetown Law School in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When Nick Rawlinson, a third-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, heard that a poet accused of antisemitism would be delivering a talk on campus, he was worried.

Mohammed El-Kurd is a Palestinian activist whose work has revolved around his family’s experience living under occupation in East Jerusalem. But the Anti-Defamation League has accused him of having a “troubling pattern of rhetoric and slander that ranges far beyond reasoned criticism of Israel” — an assessment a student group that invited El-Kurd to campus called “baseless.”

Still, the April 26 event concerned Rawlinson and other Jewish students, who wrote emails to law school administrators arguing that El-Kurd should not be permitted to speak. After they learned the event would move forward anyway — an official told students in an email, “Your safety and sense of belonging on this campus and in this community matters to me, and to every member of the school’s leadership” — they felt their feelings had been brushed aside, with little explanation about how officials had reached their decision.

“Free speech has limits when it’s incitement and when it’s violent speech,” Rawlinson said. “It’s a student safety issue.”

The conflict over El-Kurd’s appearance was the second major speech controversy on the campus this year, reflecting the pressure on administrators nationwide to showcase their schools as sites of diverse viewpoints while ensuring students feel safe and welcome. In January, an incoming faculty member was placed on administrative leave over his tweets about President Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, a move that earned both praise and criticism.

But students say the recent events underscore a culture in which the needs of racial and religious minorities are often ignored. Georgetown Law has been under a microscope since last year, when two instructors were recorded discussing the way Black students performed in class — comments that were later called “reprehensible” by the school’s leadership. In the months since, student groups have called on officials to confront “deeply embedded” problems after a professor used an anti-Asian slur in class, and Muslim students have accused a longtime professor of Islamophobia.

Georgetown Law officials acknowledged the string of recent incidents and described existing and upcoming initiatives designed to support students, including the expansion of the office of equity and inclusion, anti-bias training and inclusive pedagogy workshops for faculty.

“We are focused on how we create a better environment for all of our students and, in particular, those that don’t always feel like they’re heard or supported, or haven’t always in the past,” Sheila Foster, a professor and inaugural associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, said in an interview. “We see the potential for significant innovation as a law school that is one of the most diverse in the country.”

Students at Georgetown Law call for changes after professor used slur in class

The Georgetown Law Students for Justice in Palestine, which hosted El-Kurd on campus, defended the activist and pointed to his spot on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2021. The conflict over his presence on campus, however, has exposed larger issues around the way students understand antisemitism and Islamophobia, and members have called on the law school community to “reflect on their biases.”

“The allegations of anti-Semitism being made against him are baseless, in bad faith and seek to silence Mohammed’s voice,” the group said in a statement. “Mohammed’s record speaks for itself: he is a principled advocate for Palestinian freedom and justice for all people.”

Georgetown officials in a statement condemned acts of antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate — while also affirming its commitment to “providing space for the free and open exchange of ideas,” even if those ideas are considered by some to be difficult or objectionable.

While we affirm that open discourse, discussion and debate are essential components of academic life — we also have foundational values that stand in clear opposition to bigotry, hatred, and racism, and in clear support of assuring that every student is welcomed and respected in our community,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Georgetown has one of the nation’s largest law schools, with nearly 3,000 students enrolled in 2021, university data show. Last year, 1 in 5 prospective law students nationwide sent applications to Georgetown, resulting in a 41 percent increase in applications that left officials shocked.

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Danielle McCoy, a third-year student, transferred from a law school in New York to Georgetown in 2020. She said she was drawn to the school’s premier criminal defense and prisoner advocacy clinic, as well as the reputation of the school’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) — one of the largest and most active in the country.

“Georgetown is a top law school and as a Black law student who is first-generation everything, it’s very important for me to really look at opportunities that are going to advance my career,” McCoy said. “There’s already a lot of obstacles I have to face.”

Yet she encountered more challenges at Georgetown. In March 2021, a video clip went viral showing a conversation between two adjunct faculty members, Sandra Sellers and David Batson. On the topic of student performance, Sellers said that “a lot of my lower ones are Blacks.”

Batson, in a second clip, appeared to question his own unconscious bias. But students, including the BLSA, criticized Batson for not condemning Sellers’s comments.

Georgetown Law professor terminated after ‘reprehensible’ comments about Black students

Both faculty members apologized. Sellers was terminated from her position, and Batson resigned.

William Treanor, dean of the law school, condemned the comments at the time, calling the content of the video “abhorrent.” He also announced a slate of initiatives, including additional voluntary nondiscrimination training for faculty, plans to spread awareness of the school’s bias reporting system and increased funding for a program that supports students of underrepresented backgrounds.

But the incident left McCoy feeling disgusted.

“To hear a professor speak about Black students as if we aren’t capable of doing well and performing well and always at the bottom, that is unfortunate,” McCoy said. “I’m already dealing with impostor syndrome.”

She said those feelings resurfaced after Ilya Shapiro, who was set to take over as executive director of the law school’s Center for the Constitution in February, apologized for a thread of deleted tweets he wrote after Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his plans to retire.

In one tweet, Shapiro suggested Sri Srinivasan, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the first person of South Asian descent to lead a federal circuit court, would be Biden’s best pick. “But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman,” Shapiro tweeted, “Thank heaven for small favors?”

Shapiro was placed on administrative leave as school officials launched an investigation into whether his remarks violated university policy. He confirmed he is still on leave.

“I don’t know why it’s taking this long, but I look forward to rejoining the faculty and vindicating the values of free speech and academic freedom,” Shapiro told The Washington Post.

Incoming Georgetown Law official placed on administrative leave for tweets about Supreme Court pick

McCoy said the episode made her feel like little has changed at the law school since the Sellers and Batson incident.” “I’m just tired,” McCoy said. “We have to continue to, unfortunately, wear this armor and be prepared to deal with all of this.”

In February, the law school addressed yet another faculty scandal after a professor called a student an anti-Asian slur. The professor, Franz Werro, apologized for the remark and in a note to his class said that as a non-native English speaker, he did not “appreciate that it was a derogatory term.”

In a letter drafted by the Asian Pacific Law Students Association — and signed by other student groups — members said the episode was “the latest in a recent string of incidents that suggest a pattern of deeper systemic issues” at the law school.

Treanor in a statement said students and employees need to take a “serious look” at the school’s culture and processes. “We have significant work ahead of us to create a community in which students can learn in an environment that is free from bias, where they are able to foster positive connections with others, and where everyone feels supported and appreciated for their contributions,” he wrote in February.

That month, members of the Muslim Law Students’ Association (MLSA) began circulating a letter that accused Susan Deller Ross, a professor and director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, of “Islamophobic and racist behavior.”

Students allege Ross has discriminated against them based on their race and religion, and accused her of assigning “culturally tone deaf” coursework that perpetuates stereotypes about Muslims and Africans. In a collection of anonymous testimonials compiled by the MLSA, one student described an incident in which a classmate referred to Muslims as “backward people” and Ross did not offer a correction. Another student said they felt “humiliated” after Ross asked “a White student to ‘translate’ a technical concept I was relating to her.”

Ross, through her attorney, denied the allegations. She is cooperating in an investigation at the university and “looks forward to having these unfounded claims addressed in a reasoned and rational academic environment, and her good name and her 50+ year unblemished professional reputation restored as soon as possible,” Patricia Payne, who is representing Ross, wrote in an email.

The university did not comment on the investigation but reiterated its commitment to fostering an inclusive campus. “We have policies in place to ensure that our classrooms are free of bias and geared toward respectful dialogue,” a spokesperson said.

Hamsa Fayed, a second-year student and MLSA member, helped write the letter after taking Ross’s class last semester. She said that she has gone through official channels to report the professor’s alleged conduct but that the process has now dragged on for more than two months.

“I don’t have any hope in this administration,” she said. “I’m very jaded.”